By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
Picking the top anything of the year is never an easy proposition, and as we complete our third list of top Utah high school sports stories of the year for Preps Utah, we found that this list is no exception.
For the 2013-2014 school year, we released our Top 20 stories of the year, but this year, we have expanded our list to 25 stories, some of which combine multiple events that share common themes. Since the goal is not to be exactly right, as anything of this nature is entirely subjective, but to recognize as many of the great accomplishments of the student athletes across the state as we can, we hope you will understand.
Beginning July 13 and continuing for the next three weeks, we will release one or two items on our list per day, beginning with No. 25 and working our way up to story No. 1. Today, we announce No. 2.
#2 – Fantastic finishes
One of the best features of the Utah state basketball tournament is its format. Over the course of one week, six days, we go from 32 teams (16 Class 5A and 16 Class 4A) down to two champions. It’s a lot of basketball in a short period of time, and the storylines are endless.
The 2014-2015 boys 4A and 5A state basketball tournament provided a number of those amazing storylines and fantastic finishes, and the combination of those stories make up story No. 2 on our countdown of top stories of the school sports year.
The excitement began in Round 1 in the survival of the defending 4A state champion. Murray was certainly an underrated team pretty much all year long, so it wasn’t surprising that the Spartans made Bountiful work to get through its postseason opener. But they did more than that.
Murray didn’t have the size to create an expectation it would knock off the Braves, and it lacked the star power and big names to get a whole lot of attention, but the Spartans earned a measure of respect on that night.
The lead was 13 points with six minutes left in the game (and Murray was up). Bountiful was on the ropes. Then Zac Seljaas proved why he is so highly regarded, particularly as a player with the clutch gene. The 6-foot-7 BYU-bound senior scored 17 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter, and combined with Jeff Pollard and some stingy Brave defense to bring his team roaring back.
A driving Seljaas lay-up gave Bountiful a one-point lead in the game’s final minute, but the Spartans ran the close down and then answered, as Aubrey Hodges drilled a jumper to put his team back up 56-55 with under five seconds remaining. Those 4.8 seconds gave Seljaas a little too much time for Murray’s liking, and he delivered.
Coming out of a timeout, the Braves in-bounded the ball from the baseline with a pass up the sideline, right in front of the Murray bench. The pass was deflected out of bounds. Who actually touched it last is still a hotly debated subject, but the officials awarded the ball to Bountiful.
On the ensuing in-bounds play, the Braves got the ball to Collin Parrish who found Seljaas, and Murray had given one of the state’s best players a little too much space. Seljaas caught the pass, rose from the floor and buried a 3-pointer that helped Bountiful avoid a huge first-round tournament upset and early exit.
From there, the Braves pretty blew through the competition to win that second straight title, but it was oh-so-close to never happening, but for a memorable buzzer-beater.
End of a Four-Year Run
The drama was only beginning, and the quarterfinal, Viewmont did pull the most shocking upset in recent tournament history. The Vikings did as good a job of defending Lone Peak superstar Frank Jackson and then relied on some closing-second dramatics of their own to oust the four-time defending 5A state champions from the tournament in the second round.
Viewmont successfully slowed the pace of the game against the high-flying Knights, and did a great job of hitting their shots. The Vikings connected on 11-of-24 three-point shots in the game, and hit 7-of-11 after intermission, as they kept pace with Lone Peak until they had the chance to thrust the dagger that ended hopes of a fifth straight championship.
With 11 seconds remaining in the contest, it was tied at 61-61 when Viewmont head coach Jeff Emery took to the dry-erase board to draw up what he hoped would be a game-winning play. Everyone in the gym expected the ball to be in the hands of Austin Johnson, or at least Jake Walker, the Vikings’ top scorers, and they were options in the play’s design.
Instead, Walker kicked a pass to Josh Richins in the corner. Richins had made one other basket druing the game, but he was the right man in the right spot at the right time, and he rose up to drain a 3-pointer that sent the Viewmont faithful into delirious celebration. Richins and the Vikings ended Lone Peak’s run of titles.
Viewmont lost to Layton in its next game, buts it fantastic finish against Lone Peak is part of this top story of the year.
Bengals Survive Jesse Wade
The single most outstanding player in this year’s 5A state tournament did not make it to the state finale. Davis point guard Jesse Wade put on an offensive show for the ages just to keep his team in the game during the first half during its semifinal matchup with Brighton.
In the end, his 35-footer that would have provided the dramatic finish the game might have deserved, rimmed out and the Bengals moved on instead.
Wade fractured a bone in his wrist taking the ball to the rim late during the Darts’ quarterfinal win over Pleasant Grove, a game in which 13 of his 23 points came on fourth-quarter clutch free throws. Many of those charity tosses came after he tweaked the wrist when he put his hand out to brace himself during a fall to the hardwood.
Coming back two nights later, the Gonzaga-bound (after his LDS Church mission) senior point guard did not show a lot of ill effects, particularly early, against Brighton. While John Gremillion, Simi Fehoko and Osa Masina all joined Bengal star Brock Miller in scoring big points during the first half, It was the Jesse Wade show for Davis.
Wade hit four 3-pointers in the opening stanza and six before halftime, scoring 20 of his team’s 27 first-half points. Even with that, the Darts trailed by 14 points, 41-27 at the break. Help arrived for Davis in the second half, particularly from Landon Swartz, but when the Darts needed points, the ball was in Wade’s hands.
With a big three from Fehoko and huge free throws from Derek Devashrayee, his only two points of the night, Brighton managed to answer every Wade bucket. The 6-1 senior spent the second half dropping in jumpers and getting to the rim, either to be fouled or bury a shot. It was a performance for the ages.
With 4.5 seconds to play, those Devashrayee free throws gave the Bengals a 64-62 advantage and Davis head coach Chad Sims had no thought other than to put the ball in the hands of No. 10. Wade caught the ball in backcourt, split a pair of defenders and raced towards the basket. He was about 35 feet away, with a defender coming out to challenge, when he elevated and flicked that patented long-range bomb towards the bucket.
It seemed to hang in the air forever and with the way things were going for Wade, I am guessing most people in the arena expected it to splash the net for a game-winner, but this time that wasn’t to be. The ball kicked off the rim and bounced harmlessly away, leaving Brighton to advance to the title game.
The Kearns Bandwagon
They didn’t win the 4A tournament, but the Kearns Cougars were one of the amazing stories of the event. Led by Bushmen Ebet, Tayler Marteliz and Buay Kuajian, Kearns was perhaps the most entertaining team in the field.
During the first two rounds, the Cougars survived with late rallies mostly due to the fact that they have the ability to turn up the defensive pressure better than almost anyone. When this team fell behind, it turned to a frenetic pace at the defensive end, forcing turnovers left and right in order to get back into the game.
That style seemed to turn the gym into a pro-Kearns crowd just because this team was fun to watch. The Cougars struggled to hit shots early in the tourney, and didn’t shoot it very well in losing the 4A state finale to Bountiful, but in a tough semifinal matchup with Olympus, Ebet went off at the offensive end, leading his team to the title game with a 63-52 win.
Kearns knocked off Olympus in that 4A semifinal of the night because Ebet shot the lights out. The 6-foot-2 senior guard hit shots from everywhere on the floor, from dunks to long three-balls, connecting on 14-of-17 shots for 33 points.
When Marteliz went behind the back in transition, feeding the ball ahead to Ebet, he put the finishing touches on a 13-2 finishing run by the Cougars with a driving lay-up and a free throw after being fouled on the shot. Ebet also pulled down nine rebounds, four of them at the offensive end.
With the incredible defense and energy he already brings to the table, when Ebet shoots like that, it is electrifying.
Cragun in the Clutch
It looked for all the world as if Brighton was going to run away from Layton in the 5A state championship game, at least until Matt Cragun stepped up and changed everything. The Lancers are clearly Jarriesse and Julian Blackmon’s team, and the plays go through that dynamic duo.
At different times during the state tournament, both Blackmon’s delivered, and Layton owes much of its state championship run to their presence, but when push came to shove, it was Matt Cragun who delivered the title with clutch play after clutch play. It was a testament to the impact doing all of the little things can have in winning basketball.
And, for a memory, the 6-4 senior wing can look back on a hitting a game-winner on the last shot of his high school career.
The game was even at 46-46 when Julian Blackmon attacked the lane looking to put Layton into the winner’s circle, but his contested shot was deflected and headed off target. But, there was Cragun, who grabbed the rebound and finished off glass to provide the final margin of victory.
It isn’t like the putback should have been a surprise. Cragun was all over the offensive glass during the second half, in which the Lancers were down 13 at one point. He had four offensive rebounds followed by put-backs, including a couple of three-point finishes as he led his team back from that deficit.
Cragun scored all 13 of his points after intermission, and came up with the big plays, including the ultimate big play that sent Layton home with the big trophy.
So many moments, so much excitement. No. 2 on our list of top stories from the 2014-2015 school sports year.
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