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Niwot makes early exit from basketball playoffs

 
Series: Niwot boys basketball | Story 9

Quinn Gossett

Senior captain Sheldon Cooper (5) directed the Cougars' offense during their game against Air Academy in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs on Feb. 26.

Senior point guard Cooper Sheldon was philosophical following Niwot's three-point loss to Air Academy Kadets in the first round of the Class 4A basketball playoffs on Feb. 26. A questionable judgment by the referees in the final seconds of the game cost the Cougars another shot at the net, and, with it, a chance to tie up the score and go to overtime. Instead, the clock ticked away to 0:00 with the score at 53-50 favoring the Kadets, and as their jubilant fans crowded the court, the Niwot players headed to the visitor's locker room to get ready for the final bus ride of the season.

"Sometimes the dice don't roll your way, and you can't win them all," Sheldon said afterwards. "There's only one team that comes out victorious.... We got ourselves in a tough spot, and we had to fight our way out of it. Maybe if we hadn't gotten ourselves in that scenario, the game could have ended up differently."

The "tough spot" was a seven-point deficit near the end of the fourth quarter, which seemed gaping at that point in the game. Scoring hadn't come easily to either team all night, and Air Academy was jealously guarding the lead it had painstakingly built as the game went on. But Niwot mounted yet another comeback, and the Cougars were down by three with just a few seconds to go. Then came a curious lack of whistle after Sheldon went to the ground taking the ball up court. As stunned supporters looked on in disbelief, the game ended and Niwot lost its chance to finish what it started.

"I'm always of the mind that you want to go down fighting, and you play as it's called," Niwot head coach Clayton Wittrock said following the stinging defeat. ''And I'm just so proud of how those boys kept fighting, and adjusting, and just playing ball. They gave themselves a chance at the end, and that's all you can ever ask of these guys."

That chance was hard won, and the Cougars faced some obstacles heading into their first playoff appearance since 2017-notably, the absence of starter Kyle Reeves, one of the team's leading scorers, who was recovering from an illness. He was replaced in the lineup by senior Noah Pena, who has been hampered by a leg injury since mid-season. But if any of that bothered the Cougars, it wasn't evident in the opening minutes. An early three-pointer from Sheldon set off an 8-2 scoring run for Niwot, and an energetic defensive performance from senior Milo Ostwald seemed to put momentum firmly behind the Cougars.

Unfortunately, momentum had other ideas, and Niwot's lead evaporated quickly, thanks to an 8-2 run the opposite way, tying the game at 10-10 to end the first quarter. Then momentum abandoned both teams, and with it, their ability to score. Managing just 12 points between them, Niwot and Air Academy headed into the break at 16-16.

The coaches must have delivered similar half-time talks to their players, as scoring picked up almost immediately in the third quarter. Peña (6) and senior Austin Rathburn (5) combined for 11 points, and Sheldon and senior Jarrett Noterman also chipped in. However, Air Academy held a slight edge for most of the frame, and was up 36-31 heading in to the final eight minutes. The Kadets couldn't seem to fend off the Cougars for long, though, and, thanks to their captain Sheldon, Niwot kept finding its way back into the game.

"The fourth quarter was where you saw the Cooper we've depended on all season," Wittrock said. "I know that's going to make this loss hard for him, because really he did his best to put this team on his shoulders in the fourth quarter, and everybody played off of him with high-energy, and you saw other guys making plays, and that was huge for us. We were just one play short."

Niwot went 20-for-37 (54%) from the floor, well above its season average of 39%. Sheldon ended the night with 10 points, bringing his team-leading season total to 295, good for eighth overall in the Northern League. Rathburn led the Cougars with 15 points, followed by Noterman with seven, and junior forward Rowan Granat, who came off the bench to score six for Niwot in the final quarter.

"I think everybody did their job," Wittrock said. "I think our confidence and our focus was there. We just didn't have enough fall through the net, and we had a couple that could have bounced either way, and just didn't bounce in."

Jocelyn Rowley

Senior Milo Ostwald's (11) aggressive defense helped keep the score close during Niwot's game against Air Academy in the first round of the Class 4A state playoffs on Feb. 26.

With the loss, Niwot finished the year at 13-11, the first winning record since 2014-15. Wittrock was quick to credit the Cougars' seniors for the successful season, even if it might take them a few days to call it that.

"I told them before the game that this is a one-game season, but this one game doesn't define our season," he said. "We would have liked to move on, but I think that as they get a little bit of distance from tonight, they're going to see how much of a positive impact they had, as far as the work we're doing for the culture and philosophy of this program, and building a foundation."

Sheldon agreed with Wittrock's assessment, and, fighting to keep emotion out of his voice, Sheldon said he was "very proud" of his teammates and their growth throughout the year, even if it didn't end the way they'd hoped.

"A lot of people just know them for what they do on the floor, but they're great friends. They push me and each other every day to get better. They're not just basketball players, they're great humans, too."

 

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