By Craig Harper
For the Courier
Since 2008, playing archrival Evergreen had become a recurring nightmare for the Conifer boys basketball team. Nine straight losses, including a 29-pointer earlier this season, made for plenty of restless nights.
But there was no waking to cold sweats the night of Feb. 21 after a 57-39 home shellacking of the Cougars in the regular-season finale.
“It feels like a dream,” exuded Will Stevenson, whose 17 points helped the Lobos snap a six-game losing streak in Jeffco League play as well. “I never thought it would come true. It’s amazing. My last game ever as a Lobo and to win against our rivals, it’s the best game I’ve ever had.”
Conifer (5-18, 3-11 4A Jeffco) beat Evergreen for the first time since 2008 — and, according to Cougars coach Scott Haebe, for just the third time since 1996 — but didn’t advance to the 4A playoffs with Evergreen (11-12, 7-7). The Lobos, with five senior starters and a first-year head coach, had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, but the last three were by one, two and two points.
“I think this proves we’re a state tournament-caliber team, if we’d just developed a little bit earlier. We’re playing really well now,” said Conifer coach Eric Valerio, who never beat Evergreen in his playing years at the school. “We’ve been so close the whole year. And what’s incredible about this group is their resiliency. When you lose 18 games in a season and they still come to practice every single day working as hard as they can … it’s just great for these guys to have that pay off.”
Valerio added, “I’d like to talk about these seniors for a minute. I know whether I coach 100 more games here or zero more games here, we’re going to look back and say this is the group that started it all, this is the group that changed the culture.”
Tied 27-27 with just under five minutes left in the third quarter, the Lobos stormed to a 40-29 lead after the period behind a top-notch defensive effort and hot shooting from sophomore Micah Furman (16 points, eight in the quarter including three 3-point baskets) and Nick Hickman (six of his eight). Jack Studer (eight points) capped the run with a horn-beating trey from just inside mid-court. Stevenson then opened the fourth quarter by banking in a 3-pointer, and the Cougars were all but dead.
“It got away from us,” Haebe said. “And we didn’t shoot well. Up until the last minute we had 34 points. You’re not going to win too many games scoring 34 points.”
The Cougars shot 32 percent for the first three quarters, including 4-for-13 in the third, and committed 10 second-half turnovers leading to nine Conifer points.
“We stuck with the plan defensively,” Valerio said. “They’re great shooters, so we weren’t going to go zone. We had to stay high-pressure man. We worked all week on defending the backdoor. We bought into that and we did an incredible job defensively. To keep that team to 19 in the second half was just over-the-top effort on defense.”
The loss might have cost Evergreen a home opener in the playoffs. But a costlier setback for the Cougars is junior guard Nathan Haas. The team’s leading scorer (15.9) and top returnee from 2012-13 missed his fourth straight game with a strained ACL and will not play again this season.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Haebe said of adjusting to life without Haas. “We came out last week against Green Mountain without Nathan and played really, really well; we probably should have won that one. But he did so much for us as far as running the show.”
Sophomore Brady Bokelman led another balanced Evergreen scoring effort with nine points.