By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
RIVERTON – The high-energy pace that makes the Kearns High boys basketball team so dangerous came in spurts on New Year’s Eve, but it came up just short when matched against the steadiness of a talented Dixie team. The Class 3A Flyers made the trek north for the Riverton Holiday Tournament and returned home celebrating a championship that included a title game win over one of Class 4A’s most talented teams.
The game went back and forth, with Dixie leaning heavily on the scoring of 6-foot-4 senior guard Tyler Bennett to fend off the high-pressure defense that created scoring chances in transition at the other end for the Cougars. Just when it looked like the Flyers’ approach was going to be too much for Kearns, the Cougars took the defensive pressure to another level, closing an 11-point deficit down to one.
Kearns had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but a Nick Valles lay-up rimmed out and left Dixie as the 58-56 winner. The Cougars seemed destined to launch a desperation shot on that final possession as things were a bit ragged, but then Valles put the ball on the deck, turned the corner and found a lane straight to the front of the rim. His lay-up, released just before the clock hit zeroes, came up a tad short, just as Kearns came up a tad short on the scoreboard.
Dixie was efficient in its half-court sets all night long and the Flyers did a great job creating chances for Bennett to get to the rim. They also took advantage of a high number of Kearns fouls and connected on 18-of-25 free throws in the contest, including 9-of-13 in the fourth quarter.
The Cougars struggled to score much from set offense, but had considerable success creating turnovers and transition chances. Kearns had eight steals before intermission and led 31-29 at the break behind a balanced scoring attack that featured nine points from 6-3 junior guard Mikey Hernandez and seven from Valles, a 6-2 junior.
The Flyers began to assert themselves in the third, with great results at the defensive end. Dixie help the Cougars to just seven points in that period, while gaining a three-point advantage that it eventually extended to a double-digit lead by the midway point of the fourth stanza.
Bennett actually scored more points (nine) in the third quarter himself than the Cougars managed. Then, a pair of free throws after a flagrant foul call and a series of additional charity tosses combined with a pair of buckets from 6-8 senior forward Richard Guymon allowed the Flyers to pull away.
Just when it looked like the game was getting out of reach, Kearns extended its scrambling pressure to full court, forcing a number of turnovers that turned the contest back into a nail-biter. Steals by Valles, Eshaya Wada and 6-3 senior guard Tayler Marteliz led to baskets, and after Marteliz drained a pair of 3-pointers, there was a chance.
With 40 seconds remaining, Kaden Elzy hit 1-of-2 from the line for Dixie to put the lead at three, 57-54, but the Cougars had an answers, as Marteliz set the table to a driving 6-7 senior forward Kur Kuath to cut the margin to a single point. Another Kearns foul sent 5-8 senior Flyer point guard Malachi Otis to the stripe, where he also connected on 1-of-2.
With 16 ticks left on the clock, the Cougars called a timeout and after a Dixie foul at 7.9 seconds set up an in-bounds play for Kearns on its offensive baseline, the Cougars called their final timeout. Valles and Marteliz both took a turn handling, before Valles ended up with the ball at the top of the key with the clock running down.
At that point, the junior guard attacked the lane and got all the way to the rim before releasing the ball that fell inches shy of forcing overtime.
Marteliz led the way for the Cougars with 14 points (four 3-pointers), four rebounds, five assists and six steals. Valles scored 13 and Kuath added 10 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots. The Flyers were paced by Bennett’s 25 points, five rebounds, while Otis scored 10 points.
Kearns (9-2) opens Region 6 play Jan. 8 at Olympus (8-2) in a battle between two of that league’s elite teams. Dixie (10-2) has a non-region date at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas Jan. 9 before opening Region 9 play Jan. 13 at home against defending 3A state champion Pine View (7-4).