By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
OREM – When you don’t have a region and you aren’t officially assigned to a classification for the state tournament, you have to find other ways to test your team and see where it stands against the best competition. After overwhelming the competition in Class 2A in recent seasons, Wasatch Academy from Mount Pleasant successfully petitioned the Utah High School Activities Association to allow it to compete this year as an independent.
That means no state tournament and no region championship, but it also allows the Tigers to find tournaments and games to test themselves at the highest of levels. For them, the invitation to play in the FreeTaxUSA.com Shootout at Orem High this weekend provides an opportunity to showcase their talents in-state against some of the best teams Utah has to offer.
The fact that the Shootout is played as a series of hand-selected matchups as opposed to a true elimination tournament format probably plays to Wasatch Academy’s advantage. While most of the Utah teams in the tourney play three games against teams from outside the state, the late withdrawal of a team from Massachusetts created a scheduling issue and opened the door for the Tigers to play four games in three days, with two of them coming against two of this state’s best.
There have been a number of great stories so far in the Shootout, but this is a state-championship-like competition for Wasatch Academy and its chance to face off with four-time defending state 5A champion Lone Peak Friday night has to be the top story so far.
Here are some of the storylines through two days inside Tiger Fieldhouse at Orem High:
1) Wasatch Academy’s big test
Before the Tigers could get to the game with Lone Peak, they had a pair of battles with teams from Colorado, beginning with De’Ron Davis and Overland Thursday to open the Shootout. Davis is a Top 20 national recruit in the Class of 2016 and the Blazers are favored to win the state championship in their home state.
After falling behind early, Wasatch Academy battled back behind Koby McEwen’s 27 points, losing in the end by 11 points, 76-65.
The Tigers opened the day Friday by burying the defending Colorado state champion (and last year’s Shootout champion) Denver East 72-43. McEwen had 19 in that one, while Cody John added 18 points and nine rebounds. But that was just the appetizer on Friday’s menu.
Wasatch Academy returned for the day’s fifth contest, the late-night game in which it faced powerful Lone Peak. For those who wonder if the Tigers can play with the top teams in the state, Friday night provided an answer. While the Knights got it done, as they almost always do, it took all Quincy Lewis’ crew could muster to hold off the hungry Tigers.
After being tied heading into the final quarter, Lone Peak pulled away to a 68-62 win behind 28 points from junior Frank Jackson and 24 from sophomore Christian Popoola. John hit five 3-pointers for Wasatch Academy and McEwen scored 16, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Though 1-2 through two games of the Shootout, the Tigers are the Shootout’s top story so far, and with a Saturday game against Timpview still to come, there is one more chance to shine. A year ago, Wasatch Academy hammered the Thunderbirds at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas, so Timpview will be looking for a measure of revenge in this rematch as well.
2) Lone Peak is…well, Lone Peak
When Shootout organizers Golden Holt and Paul Overly set out on their plan to bring some of the top high school teams in the country to Orem for this showcase, they could have found no better partner than Lone Peak’s Quincy Lewis. Over the past four years, the Knights have traveled the country, winning everywhere they’ve been as a ambassador of Utah’s high school basketball talent.
While Lone Peak was unable to commit to the full Shootout this year due to a limited number of openings in the schedule, the non-traditional tournament format allowed it to play two games, and those two should both be classics.
It began with the Friday night battle with Wasatch Academy, and will conclude when the Knights turn out the lights on this year’s Shootout with a highly anticipated rematch against Overland, which beat Lone Peak in last year’s event. At Lone Peak, players do actually graduate and move on, but there always seems to be someone to step in next, and this year looks like another one of those years, with Frank Jackson leading the way.
3) Overland is the real deal
You got the feeling when they were here a year ago that Overland was on the verge of something great. The Aurora, Colorado-based Trailblazers could be the top team in this year’s Shootout, and will get a chance to prove it when they face Lone Peak Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.
It all starts with the big man, Davis, who is one of the toughest matchups down low that you will see in a high school game. The 6-foot-9 junior is not your typical skinny teenager, but he is a big man. Davis had 23 points, 10 rebounds in the team’s opener against Wasatch Academy and backed that up with 22 and 10 Friday against Timpview.
The problem with Overland, at least from the perspective of any upcoming opponents, is that it is not all Davis, and it is not always going to be the same “other guys” who step up. Against Wasatch Academy, it was King Grant-Perry with 18 points, and versus Timpview, point guard Austin Conway scored 17 and dished out six assists, while Ryan Swan pulled down nine boards.
If you were at last year’s Shootout, those names will sound familiar. This team has returned a ton of guys from a team that lost to Denver East in the Colorado state semifinals a year ago…and Davis is still just a junior.
4) Stars stepping up
Already mentioned the huge performances by Davis of Overland, Jackson and Popoola from Lone Peak, and McEwen and John for Wasatch Academy, but there are more big time stars in this event. One of the greatest things about tournament basketball is the chance to see great player after great player step onto the court.
Richland, Washington is 0-2 here after tough losses to Timpview and Orem, but if you haven’t seen Bombers’ junior Steven Beo play, you might want to head over to the Fieldhouse around 2:30 Saturday. This team can struggle to score, but Beo is a legit player, with Division I offers who can do a lot of things on the basketball court.
The host team has a different look this year, with its losses to graduation, but UVU commit Richard Harward is a major inside presence for Orem. In the first two games of this tournament, the senior center has 29 points and 27 rebounds. The Tigers are also getting great contributions from Will Clark, who had eight steals Thursday, and has scored 31 in the two contests.
Timpview is an interesting study because the T-Birds are still working their football players into basketball shape, and that seems to be impacting the rotation, but one thing that is certain for Timpview is that Gavin Baxter continues to drastically improve his game. The 6-foot-6 junior attacks the rim with power, but he also has developed his outside game a lot since last year and he can do it all. Baxter scored 26, with seven rebounds in Thursday’s 72-53 win over Richland, and then went for 18 and 8 head-to-head against Davis and Overland Friday.
For Jordan, a team flying below the radar at the Shootout, you had to notice when Stockton Christensen drained six 3-pointers in a 71-48 win over Kahuku, Hawaii Friday afternoon.
5) Traveling student section
I have to mention the group of perhaps 40 Orem High students who seem to have designated themselves as the student cheering section for the out-of-state teams. They have been there both days, moving from one end of the court to the other, to act in place of the students for the teams who are visiting from out of the area.
The numbers are not huge, but it is a nice gesture. This group cheers as though they were students at each of those schools.
6) Great Saturday matchups
Again, some people are fans of traditional elimination tournaments, and those have their benefits, but one of the major benefits of this Shootout structure is the ability to create matchups on Day 3 that are most intriguing, and not eliminated by the placement of one team or another in a rough spot in a bracket.
The five Saturday games at the FreeTaxUSA.com Shootout are set up in such a way that there should be outstanding games from opening tip at 1 p.m. until the lights go off after the 7:30 p.m. game. Along with the teams who have been here all along, Timpanogos will make an appearance in Saturday’s opener, facing off against Kahuku.
One thing this event definitely has is a strong look at some of the best players in the junior class, the Class of 2016. That begins with Beo in the 2:30 game, but it is especially apparent in the games that are now slated as the final two matchups of the event, the two games that will be televised on KMYU TV.
The 6 p.m. game features junior Gavin Baxter of Timpview on one side and junior Koby McEwen from Wasatch Academy on the other. Then, it all comes to an exciting conclusion with the 7:30 contest, as junior Frank Jackson and Lone Peak take on Overland and DeRon Davis. Jackson and Davis are both Top 50 national recruits in that 2016 class.
Here is the full schedule of Saturday games that are well worth the price of admission:
1 p.m. – Timpanogos vs. Kahuku
2:30 p.m. – Jordan vs. Richland
4 p.m. – Orem vs. Denver East
6 p.m. – Timpview vs. Wasatch Academy
7:30 p.m. – Lone Peak vs. Overland