By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Desperation often makes an excellent motivator and it paid off big for the Lehi boys basketball team Friday night. Facing a must-win matchup on the road at Westlake, the Pioneers delivered, keeping themselves very much in the crowded playoff mix in Region 4 with a 69-63 victory.
The win pulls Lehi even with the Thunder in the league standings, tied for the fourth and final postseason berth and setting up an exciting three-game home stretch for the state’s deepest region.
Behind the shooting of guards Blaze Nield and Tanner Nygren, the Pioneers were rolling in the opening quarter, burying four 3-pointers on their way to a 21-13 lead. Lehi was unable to keep the margin, however, and was particularly hurt when Marcus Draney picked up a quick second personal foul midway through the first period.
Draney sat the rest of the half, and his absence created a hole in the Pioneer defense that they had a hard time covering. That, and a bit of stagnation on the offensive end opened the door for Westlake, and led by 10 second-quarter points from Asa McCord and seven more from Maizen Fausett, the Thunder took care of the deficit.
By the 2:49 mark of the second stanza, it was a two-point game, and at intermission, the contest was knotted at 35-35.
Defenses tightened in the third, when Westlake did most of its scoring from the free-throw line, and then momentum turned when Fausett went down hard while taking the ball to the rim. The senior forward left the game with about three minutes to go in the third with a tailbone injury and he did not return until the 3:41 point in the final period. By then, the Thunder faced a nine-point hole.
Lehi opened the fourth quarter on an 11-2 run, fueled by a trapping 1-3-1 zone defense and a huge boost of energy from a well-rested Draney. While the trapping caused a number of Westlake turnovers, the Thunder also missed more than one easy shot at the rim to contribute to their difficulties.
Westlake didn’t go away quietly. It jumped on the back of McCord and then, after the Pioneers threw the ball away against full-court pressure, Jared McGregor connected on a floater that suddenly created a one-possession game at 66-63.
Draney then buried 1-of-2 from the charity stripe to move the advantage to four and Westlake came up empty, both on an initial jump shot and a Fausett follow. Nygren grabbed the second board and converted the free throws to ice the Lehi win.
McCord carried the bulk of the Westlake offense, going for 33 points, with five rebounds. Fausett was the only other Thunder player to reach double figures, with 12 points to go with 13 boards.
Lehi’s guards led the way, as Nygren finished with 24 points and six rebounds, while Nield scored 20. Draney scored nine of his 11 points in the second half, and Chase Berry was a force on the glass with eight rebounds.
The Thunder (4-5 in Region 4, 14-5 overall) may have the smoothest path to a shot at the postseason of the three teams who will fight for Region 4’s final spot. Westlake must first go to league-leading Lone Peak (8-1, 17-4) Tuesday before finishing the season with back-to-back home games against the teams – Riverton (1-9, 6-15) and Herriman (3-7, 10-9) who will miss the state tournament.
Lehi (4-5, 12-8) finishes its home season Tuesday against Herriman before closing out its season with consecutive road contests at American Fork (7-3, 17-4) and Pleasant Grove (6-3, 15-4). The Cavemen are safely into the postseason field, but the Vikings are still in danger because the schedule leaves them with a rough three-game closing slate – at American Fork and at Lone Peak next week before closing it out against the Pioneers.
It’s still quite likely that Lehi will have a chance to force a three-way tie for third with Pleasant Grove and Westlake when the Pioneers close out the season on the Vikings home court Feb. 23.