DENVER — Her name's Heaven, and she adores her basketball team even more today than she did yesterday. Heartbreaking defeat and all.
They’re family, see. Not in the cheesy T-shirt sense, but in the real-life sense. OK, in the T-shirt sense too: Why else would you endure the grueling process of rehabbing two knees — both of 'em — just to play a few seasons of hoops?
“Because I had to play with my family in high school,” Air Academy senior Heaven Hall said late Thursday night in the concrete, unforgiving dungeon called Denver Coliseum.
So this one hurt more than most: Pueblo South 45, Air Academy 42. Losing in the Class 4A state semifinals is one thing. Losing when you haven’t lost all season — the Kadets were 26-0 — is a whole different thing, a more painful thing, and the tears that poured out from the locker room looked like a private screening of "The Notebook."
Losing with family, though? Now that's tough.
“It’s like the shirts we wore before the Final Four: 'Family,'" coach Phil Roiko said afterward.
They’re not kidding. Hope I get this right, because there’s a herd of sisters and cousins who shared more than Air Academy's sweet uniforms at the state tournament: Liza and Annie Louthan, Zoe and Jessie Sims, Capri Dewing, Allie Hotz. And Heaven, the one who rehabbed her you-know-what off to come back from major injuries to both anterior cruciate ligaments to share a one long moment with the coolest people in her life.
“Couldn’t miss this,” Heaven said.
She’s saying this after a loss, you know. After a loss that corrupted a perfect season — a season that threatened to become the school's first undefeated season — against a team the Kadets had already beaten this season.
And Pueblo South 100 percent deserved the win. The Colts were better on Thursday, just as the Kadets were better in a 42-39 win back on Feb. 9. Pueblo South (24-3) was better because it had Gabi Lucero, a senior who had 25 points and is going to play her college ball at Metro State, and Jada Dupree, a junior who controlled the game and is going to play her college ball somewhere, if college coaches are smart.
No. 4 seed Pueblo South gets No. 14 seed Mullen in the final. If you’re going to that one, keep an eye on Mullen post Imani Perez, a freshman who had college recruiters in the crowd and is the next big thing in Colorado girls basketball.
Here’s a twist on the semifinal that’s a big twist or a small twist, depending on which uniforms you were rooting for: Air Academy and Pueblo South scheduled that February game when both programs sought a challenge during a regular season in which they mostly kicked tomato cans down the road. That familiarity helped Pueblo South, which tossed in a zone defense to open the game, forcing the Kadets to hit 3s in the cavernous Coliseum.
“We don’t get swept very often,” Pueblo South coach Shannan Lane said.
The Kadets hit only 5 of 26 3s. On this day they couldn’t hit the South Platte from a bridge.
“Honestly,” Liza Louthan said, “I give a lot of credit to Pueblo South. They had a great game plan, maybe from playing us before, and they did a great job. They played a great game today.”
Kylee Blacksten had her hands full in the paint with Lucero, and she fought back with 14 points and 12 rebounds. Liza Louthan had 11 points and eight rebounds, and it’s over for the Kadets.
Kind of. They’re family, remember, and Wednesday night before the big game they gathered at Coach Roiko’s house for a family potluck. They ate a ton of carb-loading pasta. They watched old news videos of assistant coach Kauna Biery, who starred on the 2012 state title team at Air Academy.
“It's just a group that wants to be together all the time,” Roiko said. "Fun, fun group to be around."
Good thing, too. You can pick your friends, sometimes your teammates. You're stuck with family.
"Ten years from now?" Liza Louthan said. "Oh, yeah. We'll still be playing ball. Playing with our kids, playing with our family. That'll never stop."
This is a good one to be stuck with.