DENVER — Arapahoe coach Jerry Knafelc knew there would be times when winning a basketball game would come down to free throw shooting.
That's why Knafelc emphasizes shooting free throws, and that practice paid off in helping send the Warriors into a Class 5A state girls semifinal game March 14.
Arapahoe (24-2) will face Highlands Ranch (22-4) in an 8:30 p.m. game at the Coors Events Center on the University of Colorado campus.
“We're going to practice to find a way to beat Highlands Ranch,” Knafelc said after the Warriors used accurate free throw shooting to eliminate ThunderRidge, 54-45, on March 7 in a Great Eight game at the Denver Coliseum.
The game was a rematch of last year's Sweet 16 game, won 44-43 by ThunderRidge. The Warriors did beat the Grizzlies, 50-36, earlier this season in a preseason non-league contest.
“We usually shoot free throws with rim reducers,” Arapahoe point guard Kera Riley said. “We shoot pressure free throws all the time and if we miss we are on the line running. We shoot at least 20 in between drills. We've gotten really good.
“Last year we lost to ThunderRidge because of free throws. We said we were never going to do that again.”
Arapahoe, a team that shoots 64 percent for the season at the free throw line, made 27 of 36 attempts from the charity stripe compared to 12 of 18 for the Grizzlies.
The Warriors made eight of 10 free throws in the final 1:51 to help stave off a comeback attempt by ThunderRidge, which trailed most of the game after a slow start.
“We beat a good team,” Knafelc said. “I told the girls they would make a run and we need to make our own run. Riley had a great game on both ends of the court. And we went out and made our free throws.”
A 3-point basket by Madison Ward gave ThunderRidge its first lead at 36-35 with 6:51 remaining in the game. The Grizzlies led 37-36 when Riley, a 5-foot-6 senior, stepped up.
She nailed a 3-point basket to push Arapahoe ahead and scored 12 points in the Warriors' 18-8 run that sealed the victory. She was six-for-six at the foul line in the last two minutes of the game.
Arapahoe hasn't had to play many close games this season, with a winning margin of 28.1 points in the Warriors' 23 wins.
“We know how to compose ourselves,” Riley said. “We know how to keep calm, we know exactly what we need to do. We are a really good defensive team and depend on our defense a lot, and with that comes the offense.”
Riley had a team-high 14 points for the Warriors, while Stacie Lukasiewicz added 11 and was credited with half of Arapahoe's six steals in the game.
ThunderRidge, which shot only 29.4 percent in the first half and fell behind by 10 points, ended its season with a 17-9 record.
Senior guard Brianna Troop, scoreless in the first half, revitalized the Grizzlies with her second-half play. She scored all of her game-high 17 points after halftime.
“Bree played a heck of a second half,” ThunderRidge coach Bill Bradley said. “Seventeen points in a half is pretty dang good.
“In the second half we played less timid. We got back and then all of a sudden we started playing timid again. Their kids made the plays. They might not have made their free throws in all the games they were up by 20 but in a close game tonight, they made the shots and that's what counts.”
ThunderRidge was 4-7 before starting play in the Continental League this season and Bradley was appreciative of the effort his team made to become a Great Eight team.
“I've coached for 23 years and I told the kids I had one other season that was as rewarding as this season for my relationship with the kids and the kids' relationship with each other,” Bradley said. “It was probably 15 or 16 years ago when my team overcame some weaknesses and achieved greatness in what they were able to do.
“That was like this year's team. I'm so proud of this team. It's so rewarding.”