Daily Camera file photo
GREELEY — For the first time in school history, the Shining Mountain girls basketball team played in the Class 1A state basketball tournament on Thursday at the University of Northern Colorado against the Fleming Wildcats. Before the two teams stepped on the court, there was concern of whether the tournament would be played or if anyone would be allowed to watch in person.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic that led to the Colorado High School Activities Association limiting attendance to essential staff and media yesterday, before offering a compromise to allow four guest for each basketball player, dominated the headlines on Wednesday, and much uncertainty surrounding the situation made the team wonder if they would get the chance to play in the state tournament for the first time.
“First it was shock,” Shining Mountain senior Lola Conaway said. “To hear the NBA had suspended all of its games, I was in shock and I wasn’t sure what to think, and then to hear that we may have no fans here today, our team’s first reaction was, ‘Uh oh’. But we got back and said that this was our chance to play in a state tournament. We needed to come play our game, so we really stopped worrying about it.”
The game would go on as scheduled, and Shining Mountain made program history with its 39-38 victory over the Wildcats, a win earned in large part by a buzzer-beating putback from Sophia Matarrese to send the Lions to Friday’s semifinals.
“That felt so good,” Shining Mountain coach Mike Hawkes said. “I’m so proud of these kids. They worked hard since they were young kids to get to this point. This has been a dream of theirs for a long time. To see them go out and have success is special.”
Shining Mountain was able to force a turnover with 4.7 seconds remaining and had to inbound the ball from half court and try to win without a timeout to draw up a play. The ball was inbounded to Kalea Zeender, who drove quickly to the rim and forced a layup while being sandwiched by three Fleming defenders.
Her shot was blocked by Fleming’s Kendyl Kirkwood, but Matarrese crashed the offensive boards and got the rebound. With less than a second remaining, she immediately floated up a shot and saw the ball drop through the net as the backboard lights went off to signal the end of regulation. Teammates stormed to embrace her and celebrate the game-winner for Shining Mountain’s first state tournament win.
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“I’m kind of in a state of shock, but it’s the best kind of shock,” Matarrese said. “We’ve supported each other throughout the whole season and I’m so proud of each and every one (of my teammates).”
Shining Mountain was able to stay in the game and get the chance to win at the buzzer by controlling the pace on the court and forcing Fleming to play more of a half-court style compared to its usual faster pace.
Fleming was able to take and early lead with a couple of turnovers forced by its press defense that led to quick looks. The Wildcats would also run in transition any other chance they could get. Conaway kept Shining Mountain hanging around early with 11 of the team’s 19 points in the first half that saw them trail 24-19 at the break.
“I felt really great with my game,” Conaway said. “I’ve had a few off games, so to come out and put some shots in and be able to play some good defense, it felt really great.”
The Lions hung around, and when Conaway hit a 3-point shot to begin the fourth quarter, it gave Shining Mountain its first lead of the game. Fleming recaptured the edge and led by one point after a Kirkwood free throw with 37 seconds to go.
Conaway led Shining Mountain with 16 points and went 6-for-6 at the free throw line in the win. Frances Hilliard had nine points and Matarrese finished with eight as five different players scored. Fleming’s top players of Kirkwood and Whitney Chintala, who both averaged just over 18 points per game entering the tournament, combined for just 29.
Shining Mountain will be back on the court at 7 p.m. on Friday against either No. 8 seed McClave or No. 1 Springfield.
“Anything can happen,” Matarrese said. “Every team here is capable of beating any other team. We all have so much heart and deserve to be here. We’re not going to take any minute on the court for granted. We’re going to play our hardest (Friday).”