COLORADO SPRINGS — In a Class 5A boys hoops title showdown between two perennial powers that had both lost its prior four finals appearances, ThunderRidge and George Washington delivered a slugfest on Saturday.
When the bruising, momentum-swing-laden game was finally over at the Broadmoor World Arena, it was suburban power ThunderRidge who outlasted city heavyweight George Washington, 68-59. In their seventh title appearance, the Grizzlies won their third crown and first since 2003.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thought about that (drought),” said ThunderRidge’s Joe Ortiz, the only head coach in program history. “I’ve chronologically gone through every year and how we’ve finished many times. I did it today a couple of times. And we’ve been close a lot — eight other Final Fours, four other finals since, so it means everything to finish like this.”
Nolan Marold led ThunderRidge with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Jason Simental had 16 points, Joey Bilello 13 and Jackson Brennan was also in double-digits with 11. The Patriots were paced by Jarmell Johnson with 13 points and Edward McPhee with 12, while Kijuan Thompson and Kendale Johnson both had 11.
George Washington, making its tenth title game showing, jumped out to a 9-3 lead to open the game, with McPhee and Jarmell Johnson pacing the early scoring. ThunderRidge responded with a 12-0 run, taking control of the momentum of the game. The Patriots didn’t blink either, though, and the first quarter ended 16-16.
ThunderRidge took charge in the second, scoring the quarter’s first six points as George Washington stalled out. The Patriots’ first points in the frame came on Jarmell Johnson’s jumper at 3:30 before half, and they started full-court pressing.
But the Grizzlies also pushed the tempo, and by the time Brennan finished a contested fast-break layup at the rim in waning seconds of the half, ThunderRidge led 31-20.
“We just stayed calm and poised and focused, even though we knew they were going to keep bringing pressure,” Brennan said.
George Washington kept its foot on the gas in the third, continuing to press and run the fast break. But just as the Patriots seemed to be about to break through, ThunderRidge would respond.
Midway through the third, a trio of successive impressive plays further titled the momentum the Grizzles’ way. Zach Keller got it going with a monster dunk, followed by a 3-pointer from Marold and an and-one drive by Simental to put the Highlands Ranch power’s lead to 39-27 midway through the third.
“That was a big sequence,” Ortiz said.
G.W. cut the lead to 41-31 at 3:01 in the quarter, as Kendale Johnson slashed to the hoop and had a circus finish, prompting an Ortiz timeout.
George Washington continued to cut into the lead thanks to its ability to finish around the rim, but ThunderRidge finished the quarter on a high note and up 47-39 as Bilello hit a put-back shot at the buzzer — or after it, as the George Washington sideline emphatically argued.
Bilello then opened the fourth quarter with a corner 3, and added a three-point-play the next possession. ThunderRidge went up 53-41, but the Patriots cut the game to single digits with under five minutes to play.
The Grizzlies continued to respond to the Patriots’ pushes, and consistently broke their press en route to the win. ThunderRidge also kept getting to the line, and finished the game 24-of-37 from the stripe. Keller said ThunderRidge was determined to finish off the victory after an adversity-laden season.
“We’ve been through a lot,” said Keller, who has offers from Utah, TCU and Boise State. “I’ve been injured (with an ankle injury), our point guard (Garrett Arnold) has been injured, we’ve gone through a lot of injuries overall and we had the pause early in the season (due to COVID). We came back from all that.”
Arnold, ThunderRidge’s senior starting point guard, played 30-plus minutes in the title game on a fractured foot.
“That was a great show of toughness and it set the tone for our team,” Ortiz said.
George Washington’s loss marked another narrow title defeat for the DPS power. The Patriots have won five championships but none since Chauncey Billups led them to consecutive Class 6A crowns in 1993 and 1994.
Since the turn of the century, the Patriots lost 5A championships in heartbreaking fashion in 2001 (40-39 to Mullen), 2009 (67-63 in overtime to Regis Jesuit), 2017 (53-47 to Eaglecrest), and 2018 (57-52 to Grandview). George Washington defeated ThunderRidge 65-59 in February, but was unable to replicate that feat Saturday.