Hayden senior Hunter Johnston celebrates after time expires Saturday on the Tigers' 61-55 win against West Grand. Hayden lost to the same team nearly a month ago, but Saturday Johnston was at his best, helping push his team to an early first-half lead it never relinquished.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Hayden senior Hunter Johnston celebrates after time expires Saturday on the Tigers' 61-55 win against West Grand. Hayden lost to the same team nearly a month ago, but Saturday Johnston was at his best, helping push his team to an early first-half lead it never relinquished.

Hayden boys basketball avenges January loss to West Grand

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Hayden's Hunter Johnston drives toward the hoop Saturday against Meeker.

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Hayden's Isaac Bridges gets tight on defense Saturday against West Grand.

— Life has changed, Hayden senior Hunter Johnston explained. Junior Paul Laliberte joined the Hayden High School boys basketball team almost a month ago, and while Laliberte’s big-point potential from the wing helped change the way all the Tigers play basketball, it’s affected none more than Johnston, who’s been able to tighten his focus a great deal on being a traditional point guard.

When the situation requires, he still can score the ball, and on Saturday he lit West Grand up to help lead Hayden to a crucial Western Slope win, 61-55.

“I’ve been more of a true point guard, but I know some games I have to step it up and score some points,” Johnston said. “They’ve been doing a box and one on Paul, and that frees me up for a lot of shots.”

Laliberte has led Hayden in points in most of the games since he joined the team, and early Saturday he appeared to be at it again, scoring his team’s first seven points.

The Mustangs buckled down on him defensively, however, and that left Johnston room to roam.

And roam he did. He finished with a career-high 22 points. He drilled a trio of treys, had 15 in the first half and constantly was swiping for steals, pushing the pace and frustrating West Grand.

“It’s amazing when my shot is falling like that,” Johnston said. “I just love it.”

The win gives the Tigers a great chance at nabbing the second seed in the district basketball tournament, which begins Feb. 21. Hayden plays just once before that first round, on Friday at home against Vail Mountain.

If the Tigers can hit the tournament with the momentum they displayed this weekend in wins against Soroco and West Grand, they should be in pretty good shape.

As much as Johnston stood out, Saturday’s win was a team effort. The Tigers had a double-digit first-half lead cut up, and the Mustangs rallied to within three late in the fourth quarter.

Hayden was too good, however. Laliberte went 4-4 from the free-throw line in the waning moments, and Johnston and Aaron Cramer each also added a key free throw.

Laliberte finished with 15 points, and Mark Doolin had 11. Jorge Valdez, severely limited in his minutes thanks to a lingering sickness, had six points and 10 rebounds while Cramer had nine boards.

West Grand’s Travis Gore, who racked up 29 points in a 68-55 win against Hayden earlier this season, was held to just 13 points.

“We couldn’t be any happier,” Hayden coach Mike Luppes said. “Now we have almost a week to get healthy, and we’re looking forward to that.”

By the numbers

Hayden boys 61, West Grand 55

West Grand — 12-12-12-19 — 55

Hayden — 23-13-11-14 — 61

West Grand — Jacob Erwin 1 0-0 2, Kris Gregory 2 0-0 4, Dillon Willson 2 0-0 6, Travis Gore 5 3-4 13, Nick Ritschard 1 0-2 2, Casey Gore 3 0-0 9, Coleman Springer 0 1-2 1, Reno Davidson 2 0-0 6, Leo Pesch 1 2-2 5, Javier Castillo 3 1-4 7. Totals 20 7-14 55.

Hayden — Hunter Johnston 8 3-4 22, Paul Laliberte 5 4-4 15, Isaac Bridges 1 0-0 2, Aaron Cramer 2 1-2 5, Jorge Valdez 2 2-5 6, Mark Doolin 5 0-0 11. Totals 23 10-15 61.

3-point shots: West Grand (8) — C.Gore 3, Davidson 2, Willson 2, Pesch. Hayden (5) — Johnston 3, Laliberte, Doolin.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

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