LITTLETON — The final shot of the first quarter was a sign the Class 5A boys basketball Sweet 16 game Feb. 25 belonged to Dakota Ridge.
Senior Alex Rodriguez launched a 3/4 shot taken from in front of Dakota Ridge’s bench just before the buzzer sounded to end the first quarter against Thomas Jefferson. Rodriguez’s shot hit nothing by net to give the Eagles a 25-10 lead after the first eight minutes.
“Never in my life have I hit one from that deep,” Rodriguez said. “When I let it go it felt a little too good. Sure enough it went in. Wow.”
No. 7-seeded Dakota Ridge went on to a 71-45 victory over No. 10 TJ. The Eagles finished with 13 3-pointers in the game, but the unthinkable shot by Rodriguez was by far the most impressive one on the night.
Dakota Ridge coach Sean Kovar said before pregame the Eagles take half-court shots and don’t leave the court until someone makes on. He said the ritual ‘finally paid off’.
“Super exciting. I actually lost my cool by jumping up a little. It caught me by surprise,” Kovar said. “We were telling him catch and shoot. He did that.”
What Dakota Ridge (21-4 record) has done is advance to the state quarterfinals in boys basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. The Eagles will face No. 2 and undefeated Mesa Ridge (25-0) on Thursday, March 2, at the Denver Coliseum in the Great 8. Tipoff is scheduled for 1:15 p.m.
Mesa Ridge stayed perfect on the season with a 79-50 victory over Silver Creek on Saturday afternoon.
“I feel like we are playing our best basketball of the year right now,” Kovar said. “We’ve got a few days to rest, recover and enjoy this moment. An Elite 8 for us I think this is the first time since 2004 when I was playing. This is really exciting for these guys. They have earned it and deserve it.”
As scripted, Dakota Ridge has balanced scoring with seniors Trevor Fuller (19 points), Steff Schattinger (12 points), Rodriguez (15 points), along with sophomore Ethan Berninger (12 points) all pouring in double-digits.
“Everything felt like it was going right,” Fuller said of the opening quarter. “We were playing as a team. Playing defense. We were playing perfect. We prepared great thanks to our coaches.”
TJ — guided by legendary coach Grant Laman — got going in the third quarter. Senior Armon Baker had the hot hand with 11 points in the third quarter, but Dakota Ridge still extended its lead to 50-25 when Fuller drained a 3-pointer with 2:20 left in the third quarter.
The victory kept Dakota Ridge undefeated on its home court this season in what was the final game on their home court for the Eagles’ nine seniors.
“I just got chills thinking about that,” Fuller said when asked about his emotion winning his final game at home. “I haven’t really taken that in that this is my last game here. Being here, playing with my best friends is great. There is nothing else I’d rather want.”
It was the second meeting this season between Dakota Ridge and TJ. The Eagles took an 81-53 home victory over the Spartans in the season opener for both teams back on Nov. 29.
Dakota Ridge heads to the Denver Coliseum to play on the big stage where the remainder of the Class 6A, 5A and 4A boys and girls tournament games will be played over the next two weeks.
“We are going to continue to do the things that got us to this point,” Kovar said of preparing for the state quarterfinals. “We talk about what travels is rebounding and defense. We’ll continue to make that our backbone.”
Facing an undefeated team won’t faze the experienced Eagles.
“I think we can take on any challenge we get,” Fuller said. “Even when we weren’t hitting our 3s today we were beating (TJ) in the paint. We were playing unselfish and that is the reason why we won this game.”
Dennis Pleuss is the sports information director for Jeffco Public Schools. For more Jeffco coverage, go to CHSAANow.com.