Cherry Creek point guard Graham Parr was so sick to his stomach he had to sit out his team’s Sweet 16 game of the 5A tournament.
The rest of the Bruins felt just about the same after Sam Stoveall had the ball stripped away as he was driving for a potential game-tying basket in the closing seconds March 6. The steal by Anthony Murray enabled No. 2 seed Cherokee Trail to hang on for a 61-59 victory at home, denying the sixth-seeded Bruins’ bid for a second-straight trip to the Great Eight.
“It’s a heartbreaker,’’ said senior center Graham Pingree, unable to hold back tears along with his teammates. “We should’ve beaten them two weeks ago (when the Cougars rallied in the fourth quarter). We could’ve beaten them tonight, but things just didn’t fall our way.’’
Cherry Creek (14-12) mounted a comeback of its own against Centennial League rival and conference champion Cherokee Trail (18-7). The Bruins trailed by 9 points with 1:37 left, by 8 at the 1:03 mark and by 4 with 26.4 seconds to go.
A 3-pointer by Stoveall and two free throws by Pingree cut the 9-point deficit to 58-52 and, after two free throws by Drick Bernstine made it 60-52, Caesar Jones hit a trey and Pingree followed a Cougars turnover with a bucket inside.
Bernstine, a University of Denver signee who missed Cherokee Trail’s first playoff game with a knee injury, missed the second of two free throws at the 26.4 mark, and Stoveall made it 61-59 on a driving layup.
Creek got a huge break when the Cougars’ Solomon Yon missed two free throws with 11.9 seconds left. Stoveall took the ball downcourt and was going down the right side of the lane when Murray knocked the ball free.
“I just made a mistake and it cost us the game,’’ said Stoveall, a 6-foot-1 senior who had 13 points, including his first two 3-pointers in three games.
“Caesar and Sam hitting those threes were really big for us,’’ said Pingree, a senior who had a game-high 16 points. “Our guys really stepped up defensively, and that’s been our MO all year. We got some stops and fouled the right people at the end, and that got us in the game.’’
Will Bower, a 6-3 sophomore who usually draws the toughest defensive assignment for Creek, held the 6-5 Bernstine to three field goals and 12 points, though Pingree said Bernstine “didn’t look 100 percent to me.’’ Bower also scored 8 points.
But without Parr, who had practiced as late as March 5, Creek’s ballhandling wasn’t up to par, especially against the quicker Cougars. The Bruins committed 17 turnovers leading to 19 Cherokee Trail points in the first three quarters, but only had three in the fourth-quarter comeback, including the one by Stoveall at the end.
“It hurts when you lose your point guard, but we’re not making any excuses,’’ said Creek coach Mike Brookhart.
“He’s been our centerpiece all year,’’ Pingree said of Parr.
Creek almost overcame the turnovers by shooting 50 percent from the floor (the Cougars shot .361 for three quarters and were 12-of-18 from the foul line in the fourth and 18-28 overall to the Bruins’ 9-13).
Pingree hit double figures scoring for the eighth time in nine games and 18th overall.
“Graham had a really good season,’’ Brookhart said of the senior, who was not part of the regular rotation in 2012. “He was one of the most improved players in the state, I believe.’’
“It’s an honor to have him say that,’’ said Pingree, who averaged 11.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. “I just worked my butt off in the offseason to get to where I am today. My teammates definitely got me open and most of my baskets, it wasn’t me doing it, it was my teammates getting me the ball in the right place.’’
Stoveall, the other main senior cog, averaged 16.0 points including 51 of his team’s 84 3-pointers.
The good news for 2014 is that Bower and Parr, who averaged 8.4 and 6.7, return along with Jones (season-high 12 points including two 3’s in the finale), Taylor Shepard and 6-4 Dylan Schneider.
“We’re always encouraged about the future,’’ said Brookhart, noting Creek started three underclassmen throughout the season.
But for Brookhart, the emphasis March 6 was on the accomplishments of his 2013 team. With just two regulars back from a 2012 team that lost by one point to Rangeview in the quarterfinals, Creek faced a schedule that included a loss to No. 1 Denver East and two each to the Centennial League trio of top four seeds Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest (2) and Grandview (4). The Bruins beat Arapahoe twice, and the Warriors, also a No. 6 seed, advanced to the Great Eight after two straight Final Four appearances. The Bruins reached the Sweet 16 with a second-round upset of No. 3 seed Aurora Central on March 2.
“I feel bad for the kids,’’ Brookhart said of the season-ending loss. “They played their guts out and I’m proud of them. We had our chance for the final eight and we didn’t do some things we needed to do.’’