Hayden boys basketball coach Shawn Baumgartner was curious about how the Tigers would respond without leading scorer Evan Hilling.
His players answered any questions by defeating Plateau Valley, 80-38, in the opening round of District 5 play, sending a clear message to upcoming opponents that this year's team is more balanced and has more depth than any in recent memory.
"We don't have one great player," senior Levi Sheldon said.
Saturday, while Hilling was icing his sprained ankle in a bucket, the Tigers dominated play inside the paint. With 6-foot-1 Blake Enoke as the tallest listed player on its roster, Plateau Valley had no answer for 6-foot 4 Keenan Bruchez or the 6-foot-3 Sheldon.
The pair combined to score 49 points, mostly on high-percentage shots, but Sheldon's biggest buckets came with 4:04 and 3:35 left in the first half. He hit two 3-pointers from the right baseline on Hayden's two possessions after Hilling went down with a sprained ankle.
"It's usually me and Evan going back and forth scoring," Sheldon said.
"I felt like I would have to take control."
The Cowboys went on a 9-4 run to close out to within nine in the final minutes of the first half, but Bruchez and Sheldon made baskets in the final 39 seconds to push Hayden's lead back to double digits.
"I thought Levi did an absolutely outstanding job of stepping up for us," Baumgartner said.
The Tigers came out in the third and scored 14 of their 25 points on lay-ups. Hayden outscored Plateau Valley, 25-7, in the third to put the game away.
"The third quarter has always been our quarter," Sheldon said. "In any games where we've struggled, we haven't played well in the third."
In addition to Bruchez and Sheldon, who scored a game-high 27 points, Hayden got 10 points from Hilling and eight from junior Tyson Letlow. Senior Hansel Feller led Plateau Valley with 17 points. Enoke added six.
The win advances Hayden into the next round of District 5 play. The Tigers will host a four-team tournament Friday and Saturday at the high school. Hayden faces Grand Valley at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Should they win, the Tigers will advance to the championship game.
The top two teams advance to the regional round, and Rangely is guaranteed one of those spots after winning the regular season Western Slope League title.
Baumgartner said Hilling's ankle injury didn't appear serious, and he expects the senior to play.
-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org