Free-throw trouble plagues Mesa Ridge girls in state 4A semifinal loss to Pueblo South

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DENVER - The old basketball proverb of "free throws win games" holds true - especially in the postseason.

Unfortunately, the Mesa Ridge girls’ basketball team learned the hard way Thursday, as poor free-throw shooting in the second half of a state semifinal game against Pueblo South cost it a chance to fight for a 4A title.

The Colts hit 12 of 15 free throws through the second half and a four-minute overtime period to help in a 74-62 win over Mesa Ridge.

Pueblo South will face either Evergreen or Widefield in the final at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“We missed way too many free throws,” Mesa Ridge coach Jeff Beatty said. "If we make our free throws, we are up by 10. We’re usually a pretty good free-throw shooting team so that was pretty uncharacteristic of us. And when you’re making free throws that keeps the momentum going.”

The Grizzlies took advantage of their typically sharp free-throw shooting in the first half, sinking eight of nine attempts to head into the locker room with a two-point lead. But after the break, in a second half that featured four ties and seven lead changes, Mesa Ridge’s free-throw percentage dropped to a mere 47.4 percent (9 for 19). The Grizzlies averaged 65 percent from the line this season.

But despite troubles at the line, Mesa Ridge worked to eliminate a five-point deficit in the final 2:35 of regulation. Chloe Welch scored a layup and sank a pair of free throws to put Mesa Ridge within one. A missed Pueblo South free throw and a big rebound by Ashley Bowen got Welch the ball back with 21 seconds left, who worked down the court. She scored a layup for a one-point lead.

Bowen then pulled down another big rebound and was fouled and made one of two free throws for a two-point edge with less than seven seconds on the clock.

The Grizzlies looked to have it locked before Maya Austin, the thorn in the Grizzlies' side all afternoon, pulled down the rebound of Bowen’s missed free throw and worked her way down the court with less than five seconds left in regulation. She tied the game with a layup at the buzzer.

“We didn’t execute our defensive game plan very well,” Beatty said. “They had a girl (Austin) do what she wanted to do all game, and we specifically talked about what we needed to do to stop it, but it didn’t happen. When you don’t play defense, and you don’t make free throws, you lose.”

Austin finished with 34 points including an 11-for-13 performance from the line in the second half. Gabi Lucero scored 22 for the Colts.

Welch led the Grizzlies with 29 points and 12 rebounds. Bowen had 15 points and nine rebounds.

The 2017-18 season was Mesa Ridge’s third appearance in the state semifinals in program history. Last season the Grizzlies did not make it past the round of eight.