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Dove Creek advances to Final Four in Colorado basketball tournament

Dove Creek Rylee Hickman (20) shoots over teammate Lexi Gray in this photo from the Colorado state tournament last year. On Thursday, the two seniors combined for 22 of the Bulldogs’ 28 second-half points, as Dove Creek topped Stratton in the 1A quarterfinals. (Joel Priest/Special to The Journal)
Bulldogs top Stratton 47-40, move to 1A semifinals

The Dove Creek girls’ athletic programs have accomplished just about everything that you can imagine over the course of the careers of five Bulldog seniors.

For both the volleyball and basketball programs, the Bulldogs have made the state tournament an annual tradition. The one elusive component for the Bulldog girls, however, has been a spot in the Final Four.

Their final opportunity to add that achievement to a packed résumé arrived at the University of Northern Colorado in the Thursday evening matchup with No. 5 Stratton.

Another landmark added to the list – seniors Lexi Gray and Rylee Hickman carried the Bulldogs with 27 points, including 22 of the Bulldogs’ 28 second-half points, as Dove Creek topped No. 5 Stratton 47-40 in the 1A state quarterfinals.

The Bulldogs never lost the identity of the team that carried them to a 21-game winning streak – with active pressure of an evenly-matched Eagles squad that turned the game into a strong defensive battle.

Gray’s control of the paint in the second half, scoring the final 10 points of the contest, including a couple of stick-backs in the late stages, helped the ‘Dogs preserve the victory.

The quarterfinal bout carried the energy that met the occasion, a spot in the state semifinal against No. 1 McClave on the line.

After Stratton’s Sedonia Isenbart opened the game with a lay-in, the Bulldogs responded with five straight points, with junior Kylie Gatlin drained a right-wing 3-pointer to give the No. 4 seed Bulldogs their first lead.

The Eagles briefly took the lead at 6-5, sophomore Ralynn Hickman drained a midrange jumper to restore the Bulldog lead, 7-6. Then, Isenbart put on a show – the junior buried back-to-back threes, including a buzzer-beating triple from midcourt to give Stratton a 13-7 edge after one quarter.

Isenbart continued her personal scoring run into the second quarter with two free throws to build Stratton’s largest lead of the game, up 15-7, to cap a 9-0 run.

Needing a response, the Gatlin sisters delivered – as Kalie dropped in a straightaway three, before her sister Kylie duplicated the feat moments later to cut the margin to 17-14.

Senior Lexi Gray scored her first points of the game with three points to knot the game at 17- a sign of things to come – before Kylie Gatlin made a pair of charity tosses to give D.C. the lead to cap a 12-2 run. Stratton freshman Sophia Isenbart scored right before the half to tie the game to send the teams to the locker room in a riveting 19-19 tie.

After trailing by as many as eight in the opening two quarters, fifth-year head coach Julie Kibel knew that her squad wasn’t dismayed, “We said at halftime, ‘We’re right in the game, now let’s go out and execute in the second half’,” said Kibel in a postgame interview with KRTZ play-by-play broadcaster Kelly Turner.

Her team did just that – Dove Creek surged in front in the second half, as Kylie Gatlin broke into double figures with more free throws to give the Bulldogs a 25-21 lead.

Sensing the urgency, seniors Rylee Hickman, along with Gray, took over the second half. Carrying a late season injury, Hickman refused to back down, scoring seven points in an important run that kept the Bulldogs in front. Gray, meanwhile, took over in the paint, complementing Hickman’s transition dominance by controlling the boards.

“The girls saw the floor well, and were able to pick them apart with some good passing,” added Kibel of her team’s second half surge, “and Trista (Barnett)’s defense and rebounding throughout the game was absolutely unreal.”

Gray started her personal run with a jumper to build the Bulldog lead to 39-32, its largest of the game, before adding another put-back after Sedonia Isenbart buried a three to keep the Eagles in the game.

Another two buckets from in close, to go along with clutch free throws in the one-and-one for Gray cemented the victory, while the Bulldog defense did the rest of the work to hold on for the win.

Gray accounted for 15 of her team-high 17 points in the second half, as she and Hickman accounted for the final 22 points for the Bulldogs, and the ‘Dogs could celebrate their first trip to the Final Four.

Kylie Gatlin scored 10 points to join the double figure parade for Kibel’s squad, while Kalie added six points, while sophomore Ralynn Hickman scored four.

Sedonia Isenbart led all scorers with 24 points, while her sister Sophia added 10 for the Eagles.

Dove Creek will face off with No. 1 McClave in the state semifinals, as the Bulldogs and Cardinals will meet for the third straight year in the postseason. D.C. won their first meeting in 2021 in the round of 16, while McClave bounced back with a victory in 2022.

“We’re excited for the challenges ahead,” added Kibel, “and I think we have enough balance and plenty of weapons, to execute with good cutting and screens, to hopefully be right there in the next round.”

Coverage of the contest is available on local radio station 98.7 FM KRTZ beginning at 6:45 p.m., with tipoff in the semifinal bout slated for 7 p.m. The winner will take on the victor of No. 2 Flatirons Academy and No. 3 Briggsdale for the state championship on Saturday afternoon.