LONGMONT — The monkey is officially off the back for the Mead Mavericks.
Having lost in the Great 8 in three of the last four state tournaments, the No. 1 seeded Mavericks prevailed 69-63 on their home floor over the No. 25 seed Lincoln Lancers and punched their ticket to the Final Four in the Class 4A state basketball tournament.
“I can’t really explain it,” Mead’s Will Maher said. “I’ve been to three (Great 8’s), and this is the first one we’ve been able to get to the Final Four. We did it for coach (Darin) Reese and everyone that came out. It’s a special feeling for the whole community.”
The win, marking Mead’s 25th consecutive victory, was perhaps the toughest they had to earn over a Lincoln team who already pulled off two upsets on the road in the state tournament and did not back down to the No. 1 seed.
Tijani Bamba and Ty Foster were aggressive in attacking the rim while also hitting jump shots from behind the arc and free throws that kept Lincoln in contention. Gabe Hernandez provided a spark in the first half with three 3-pointers and both teams were tied at 30 at the break.
Reese threw different players on Bamba and tried different defenses in order to contain Lincoln’s top two scorers on Saturday.
“We’ve got a couple of pretty tough kids that we thought we could cover them, but not one-on-one,” Reese said. “You can’t cover those guys one-on-one. Our help side and our guys in gaps were really important. It was a team effort to handle those two, but they still got some.”
The two teams continued to go back and forth with each other, with Mead driving to the rim and then finding the open man inside or on the perimeter, and Lincoln’s attacking style that resulted in layups, fouls and a few open 3-pointers to match.
Mead looked to be on its way to a win with an early 48-41 lead in the fourth, but Lincoln overtook them with a 10-2 run behind Bamba and Foster. The deficit late in the game did not rattle the Mavericks, despite having to play from behind rarely this season.
“We know that if we relax and play together, and just focus on each other, we can get things done,” Mead’s Jacob Bartholomew said. “That’s what we did.”
Nick Jacobs hit two critical 3-pointers that got the lead back for the Mavericks and Bartholomew had a dunk that kept the Mavericks in front late in the fourth quarter. The biggest moment down the stretch was Maher going to the free throw line to shoot six free throws due to a foul and two technical fouls called against Lincoln. The senior stepped up to make five of them and put the Mavericks in front 66-58, which allowed them to hang on late for the win.
“It was like any other free throws really,” Maher said. “I’m a little disappointed I missed the last one, but I’m glad I made the first five.”
Maher led the Mavericks with 21 points and made six of the team’s 13 free throws in the win. Bartholomew was perfect from the field making all six of his shot attempts to finish with 14 points and Jacobs hit four of six shots from behind the 3-point line to score 14 as well. Foster was the top scorer in the game for Lincoln with 24 points and Bamba added 16.
The win was extra sweet for Mead after coming up short the three previous times they made it to the Great 8 round.
“This is a different group,” Reese said. “This is a special group. It means a lot. I’m proud of the fight in these guys.”
The Mavericks will take on the No. 5 seed Northfield Nighthawks (21-5) in the Final Four on Friday at the Denver Coliseum after their 73-59 win over Pueblo East. A win there will give Mead a chance to win its first boys basketball state championship since 1957, according to records on CHSAANow.com.
“We’re super excited, this is the first time we’ve been able to push through and do this, but we’re not finished yet,” Bartholomew said. “There are more goals ahead.”