PUEBLO - Chalk this one up to defense.In-your-face, aggressive, shoe-squeaking defense.
Pesky, frustrating, game-changing defense.
Ignacio High School's storybook run through the Class 2A State Basketball Tournament took a plot turn Friday afternoon when No. 1-ranked Holyoke stifled the Bobcats with the state's top-ranked defense, winning 45-33 in the boys state semifinals.
Just one day after celebrating a dramatic 55-54 victory over Heritage Christian, the Bobcats tasted a bittersweet State Tournament loss at the hands of the defensive Dragons, who will take their 25-1 record into tonight's 2A state championship game.
Ignacio's record-setting 20-game winning streak came to an abrupt end in front of a vocal and vivacious crowd - divided equally among Ignacio fans and Holyoke fans - at a packed Massari Arena on the campus of CSU-Pueblo. The Bobcats (23-2) will play for third place at 2 p.m. today against No. 2 Meeker, which lost to CS School.
"They're the No. 1 team in the state for a reason," Ignacio head coach Chris Valdez said, crediting the overall game of the Holyoke Dragons.
"They did a good job. They can be proud of who they are and where they came from. But I'm proud of our guys. I've got to be proud of the effort," Valdez said after Holyoke broke open a close game with key free throws down the stretch.
"Our kids played their hearts out. This one game will not define our season. Sixty-two teams (in Class 2A) started, and we're in the top four (in the state). We play for third place (today)," Valdez said.
He said the Bobcats entered the game trying to slow down Holyoke's two consensus all-state players, 6-1 senior guard Austin Tharp and 6-5 junior leaper Kyle Carper, who sports one of the top vertical jumps in the state.
"We wanted to stop their main guns, and we did. What was it, 21-18 at the half? And their big guys had only five or six points," Valdez said.
"But their other guys stepped up."
Specifically, low-scoring role player Colby Wailes stepped up for Holyoke.
With Ignacio's defense hounding Carper and Tharp, Wailes hit three 3-pointers and a long 2-pointer in the first half, helping Holyoke to its three-point halftime advantage.
Ignacio junior center Alex Herrera, who hit the game-winning shot in Thursday's win over Heritage Christian, scored 11 points in the first half against Holyoke.
But the Dragon's defense already was taking a toll.
Only three Bobcats managed to score in the opening two quarters - Herrera, Trae Seibel and Micah Odoms.
And the Dragons upped the defensive pressure even more in the third quarter, limiting Ignacio to a season-low four points in the period (including a mammoth, two-handed dunk by Herrera).
Holyoke led 30-22 entering the fourth quarter as their green-clad fans offered their roaring support.
Forcing turnovers, the Dragons pushed the lead to 10 points at 34-24 with 4:58 to play.
They forced three more turnovers and extended the lead to 37-25 before the Bobcats answered.
Two foul shots from Seibel and a 3-pointer from Taylor Dean cut the lead to seven points with 1½ to play.
Holyoke sealed the win by converting 8 of 10 free throws in the final 1:15, including 4-for-4 from Tharp. He made 9 of 10 foul shots in the fourth quarter to finish as Holyoke's leading scorer with 13 points.
But he had only one first-half field goal to go with 11 free throws against the Holyoke-like defense of Ignacio junior Oakley Hayes.
"He's a great defensive player. He was in my grill all night," Tharp said in tribute to Hayes.
The Holyoke senior said the team moved him inside in the second half, where his post-up game led him to the free throw line.
But, he stressed, defense was the difference in this game.
"We pride ourselves on having the best defense in the state ... it's fun for us," Tharp said.
"We're like a group of brothers ... playing for each other, for our fans, for the school."
The Holyoke defense forced 15 turnovers.
And the deliberate, time-consuming Holyoke offense committed only four turnovers.
"We're not a juggernaut on offense," Holyoke head coach John Baumgartner said. "Defense makes us go."
Their league also helped prepare them for matchups like Ignacio, he said.
"You know, our league is good. We've played against some size ... a 6-8 kid (from Burlington). And we played against good, quick guards. Caliche (a 1A State Tournament team) is in our league, and they're the real deal.
"Our kids just believe in defense," Baumgartner said. "We're holding teams to 34 points a game, and we've done that here at the State Tournament (Holyoke beat Sargent 44-35 on Thursday)."
He said Herrera presented a major problem as the Dragons battled foul trouble in the first half.
"Herrera is a great player inside. We had to do something to take him out of the game," said Baumgartner, who added that the team went to a zone in the second half to keep Herrera in check.
"They are a very physical team. But, we didn't turn the ball over. That helped," he said.
"And we made our free throws."
They finished 17-for-28 from the line.
Ignacio, forced to foul late, was only 5-for-8 from the line.
Wailes added 12 points for Holyoke. Carper scored six points, well below his season average.
Herrera led Ignacio with a game-high 15 points. Dean added six points, as did teammate Seibel.
"We did a good job getting into the paint early," Valdez said. "But we couldn't move the ball back out fast enough. We missed a few layups, and we turned the ball over."
And, he said, the season's not over yet.
"We have one more game, and we want to send the seniors out right. We'll come back ready to play," Valdez said.