DENVER - The Vanguard School boys’ basketball coach Joe Wetters set out to find a way to prepare his team to play with Colorado’s best in Class 3A, and that apparently meant a trip to Florida.

Last year’s 20-2 record and Tri Peaks district championship did little to prevent a second-round exit when the fifth-seeded Coursers lost to Lutheran, an eventual finalist despite the 12 seed, by 15. So when it came time to come up with a 2018-19 schedule for the Coursers, coach looked far and wide, finding what he was looking for in the KSA Classic Tournament in Orlando.

That’s where the Coursers (24-2) lost their only games this season, each by four points, but it’s also where the Coursers got to see teams with the combination of size, skill, athleticism and depth they figured they would find at University of Denver’s Hamilton Gym.

“That is why we went up to Florida, because we knew when we came up to this gym right here, we wanted to know that we could handle pressure, we could handle physical play and we could close out games. That is the sole reason that as a coach I wanted to go to Florida,” Wetters said. “I know they probably wanted to go to Disneyland and that stuff too, but we knew that to get the highest level of competition, we’d go to that national tournament and we are definitely reaping the benefits.”

Only three teams in the state played the Coursers within single digits, and DSST-Stapleton failed to join that club, as Vanguard advanced to its first state championship game with a 69-59 win over the Knights, who looked something like the teams in Florida.

“They were really athletic and really strong, but we were ready for that,” Vanguard senior Carter Milroy said. “We went down to Florida and played some huge schools and some huge guys, so we were ready for the physicality of it.”

The Coursers used a familiar formula to open up a 34-21 halftime lead. Senior Seth Fuqua hit three 3-pointers in a 17-point half. Junior Joe Padilla hit a couple from deep, and Nique Clifford had a couple of dunks and a couple of chase-down blocks.

“I think the kids really locked in on what the game plan was,” Wetters said. “We had a way we were going to play that team.”

In the second half, the Coursers got contributions from a couple of other seniors.

“Tonight it was a complete team game,” said Fuqua, who led the charge with 23 points. “Everyone played well. No one was lacking.”

Logan Arrasmith scored three straight buckets to give the Coursers a 19-point lead in the third before DSST came with a press that tightened the game. The No. 8 seed, which knocked off No. 1 Lutheran in the quarters, pulled within eight after a bucket by Justin Kahn early in the fourth.

Sterling Lee then scored all six of his points down the stretch to help the Coursers put the game away.

Beyond Fuqua, Clifford finished with 16 and Padilla with 13. Milroy, Arrasmith and Lee combined for another 17.

“It’s great to know that those kids have prepared all season long to be in this moment,” Wetters said. “We know it’s going to take that fourth or fifth guy to get us to the next game or to that golden ball.”

That, and a holiday trip to Florida.

The Coursers will play No. 3 Manual for the championship after the Thunderbolts beat No. 2 Sterling, 61-55, in overtime

“We’ve been mentally preparing to play Sterling or Manual all season long. We knew those were the two teams that were ahead of us,” Wetters said. “The kids are ready.”

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