Tuesday night’s game was already well in hand when Cheyenne East sophomore Xavier McCord pulled down an offensive rebound and went up for the put-back.
McCord’s attempt missed, but the ball fell back to him. He shot again, only to see the ball careen off the backboard and bounce off the iron.
On the other side of the rim was East junior Erik Oliver, who didn’t miss his put-back. Kelly Walsh had no answers. The Thunderbirds took a 54-32 lead with that fourth-quarter score at Kelly Walsh High School and the preseason No. 1 team in Class 4A cruised to a 62-47 win.
“They were really athletic and talented,” Kelly Walsh head coach Randy Roden said of the T-Birds. “They can stretch the floor even more so, talent-wise, they pose a lot of issues. Length, rebounding is where they kind of hurt us, they got out in transition and that hurt us.”
Oliver scored a team-high 20 points, 16 of which came in the second half after a slow start.
“I struggled starting off but I tried to keep my head up,” Oliver said. “I had my brother and my dad sitting on the baseline just telling me what to do and to keep attacking because they see a lot more than me on the court. So I listened to them and tried my best.”
A sluggish start wasn’t limited to just Oliver. East scored in transition, leading by as much as 16-5 early in the second quarter, but the half-court offense struggled to find consistency and allowed Kelly Walsh to tie. The Thunderbirds took a two-point lead into halftime thanks to a bucket from junior Tanner Muchmore.
East head coach Jeff Bailey sat his team down at the break and laid the first half out. Senior Gabe Patton only had six, Oliver had four, McCord had a team-high eight and Muchmore’s only points were those that put the T-Birds out in front.
That wasn’t going to cut it.
“Coach kind of ripped into us in the locker room,” Oliver said. “No disrespect to Kelly Walsh, they’re a good program, but I think we knew we were a better team. We knew we weren’t four points better than them if we won by four.
“We tried to push that gap and put the hammer down because we didn’t want to be in a close game. We have troubles finishing out close games this season so we just wanted to put the hammer down on them.”
With the win East finishes the pre-winter break at 4-4. Not ideal, but Tuesday’s game was the T-Birds’ first of the year against a Wyoming opponent. Their losses came to Rapid City (South Dakota) Central; Highlands Ranch, Colorado; and Denver Lincoln. Wins include games against Henderson (Colorado) Prairie View and Denver Northfield.
Oliver was the team’s leading scorer going into Tuesday night’s game with 18.7 per outing. Patton, who finished with 13 against Kelly Walsh, was second with 14.8 per game. Oliver also leads the team in rebounds with 6.6 per game.
While there have been some bright spots and pleasant surprises with team chemistry so far, there is still considerable improvements to be made between now and March.
“It’s good,” Oliver said. “We’ve still got a lot of learning to do, obviously, but we got a lot of young guys and a lot of older guys with some experience. Things are still gelling, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
All that work will be necessary if East is to meet its ultimate goal.
The T-Birds missed the playoffs in Oliver’s freshman year and lost to Rock Springs in the quarterfinals last year. It’s a lofty ambition to go from missing the tournament to winning it in two years, but that’s how high the ceiling is for East.
“Win state,” the junior guard said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do this early in the season, but winning state is our number one goal.”