By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography) & Kevin McInnis
SALT LAKE CITY – It’s always exciting to watch the stars shine at state tournament time, but it’s often players less heralded whose performance in the biggest games makes all the difference. Wednesday and Thursday provided a high level of entertainment as the state’s 16 best 4A and 5A boys basketball teams gathered at the Huntsman Center for the 2016 state tournament quarterfinals.
Culminating with the much-anticipated, too-early-in-the-tournament matchup between Lone Peak and Copper Hills, it was eight games filled with players who stepped into the spotlight and delivered their teams into the final four, with the semifinals set for Friday at the University of Utah.
Here is a snapshot at something that stood out to me in each of the eight quarterfinal battles as well as a look ahead at Friday.
4A Quarterfinals (Wednesday, March 2)
Highland 76, Mountain View 64
What was expected to be the Rick Schmidt vs. Brigham Bateman show turned out to be a huge showcase for Bateman, Mountain View’s 6-foot-1 senior guard. He went off for 35 points against the Rams, but it was not nearly enough. Schmidt had a nice game for Highland, but it was the overall shooting excellence of his entire team that carried the day.
Brevin Elsholz drained three 3-pointers in the opening quarter and led the Rams with 24 points. Highland shot over 51 percent from the floor, while the Bruins connected on just 31 percent of their shots, and that was determinative.
Bateman dropped in 17 points in the fourth quarter alone as Mountain View equaled its three-quarter scoring total of 32 points in that final stanza. So, how did Highland answer that – with a 31-point period accomplished mostly from the charity stripe. The Rams hit 23-of-27 from the line in the fourth quarter to seal their spot in the semifinal round.
Timpview 58, Kearns 42
When we think of Timpview, we often get caught up in the highlight-reel action we have seen of Gavin Baxter throwing down dunks left and right. The Thunderbirds’ win over Kearns featured some of that, but victory was accomplished because Timpview delivered at the defensive end while using an efficient offensive attack that pressured the Cougars into rushed shots from which they could not recover.
One number that jumps off the stat sheet from this game is 23.5 – the shooting percentage for Kearns in the contest. Some of that was due to some questionable shot selection, but most of it was due to the Cougars need to answer what was coming from the T-Birds.
Baxter mixed in some spectacular with a major dose of efficiency. The 6-7 senior scored 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, pulled down 12 boards and led his team with five assists.
Another set of numbers that cannot be ignored from this one is 9-for-9. Though just 6-3, AJ Bollinger has the kind of wide body that is difficult to handle, and he has some outstanding footwork in the post. Bollinger hit all nine of his shots, all right at the rim, to match Baxter’s 18-point output.
Olympus 50, Orem 46
As expected, this was a chess match between two great coaches, and in the end, Matt Barnes’ team barely squeezed by Golden Holt’s charges. Olympus has a lot of guys who can shoot it and likes to score, but this year’s Tigers have been better at a more controlled pace.
The game titled more to Orem’s style of play, but the outcome was determined by the Titans’ ability to hit a couple more shots in the second half. For the game, Olympus made 43.6 percent of its shots, but the Titans hit a higher percentage – 50 percent – from beyond the three-point line than they did from two-point range.
During one stretch in the second half, a three-point shooting contest broke out between couple of young-uns. Freshman Jeremy Dowdell was cashing in from way downtown for the Titans, sophomore Ross Reeves had answers at the other end, hitting some critical long balls, while Reeves was 4-of-5 from distance in the game, the rest of the Tigers were 2-for-11.
Dowdell hit on 3-of-4 for Olympus, while senior Nate Fox drained 4-of-5. That combination ultimately led to a big win for the Titans.
Woods Cross 51, Payson 49
In tournament terms, the phrase “survive and advance” is probably used far too often, but it’s still the best way to describe what happened to Woods Cross in its tournament quarterfinal win over a 13-11 Payson team. The Wildcats had to survive the inside game of Payson’s Kolten Mortensen, who hit 10-of-14 shots for 21 points, and also grabbed 10 rebounds.
Woods Cross advanced because Trevin Knell, Cameron Allen and Jordan Lewis made just enough plays to rescue a win that certainly could had slipped away.
The Wildcats were down two with less than two minutes to play when Knell stole the ball and took in the length of the court for a bucket that tied the game at 49. That, however, put the Lions in position to run clock and try for a game-winner, but it’s hard to hold the ball for 1:36.
With 11.8 seconds remaining, a pass went off the hands of a Payson player and bounced into backcourt, a turnover that opened the door for Woods Cross to survive. The Wildcats ran a great play to get Lewis a clean look at a lay-up, which he converted while being fouled. He missed the subsequent free throw, but after the Lions were off target on a half-court heave, Woods Cross was through to the semifinals.
5A Quarterfinals (Thursday, March 3)
Bingham 71, American Fork 57
When two teams like American Fork and Bingham get together these days, the stars come out. The Cavemen were down one significant piece with the season-ending injury to Brendan Bailey, which left Spencer Johnson and his cast of friends to carry the load.
If American Fork had found a way to win this game, Johnson would definitely have been the headliner, as the 6-5 senior picked up his fourth foul just before halftime. He played all but a few seconds of the second half without picking up a fifth and scored 24 of his team’s 57 points.
In the end, however, with the Miners contesting every single shot American Fork tried to get up, the Cavemen missed 40 of their 60 attempts and that was too much to overcome.
On the other side, the stars had their moments, but American Fork’s defense made Yoeli Childs (19 points, 12 rebounds) and Samuta Avea (24 points, 13 rebounds) work overtime for everything they got. The difference in this contest came down to a couple of huge hustle plays by Simote Lokotui, a few more from Lleyton Parker and Dason Youngblood and a really strong performance from perhaps the most unsung Miner, Schyler Shoemaker. His 11 points all seemed to come at the most critical moments, as did his eight rebounds.
Layton 70, Sky View 69
The Northern Utah quarterfinal matchup entered the day as the undercard to the games involving the teams from Region 3 and Region 4, but this one was perhaps the game of the day. It was played at a fast pace, as these two teams went back and forth at each other, with big play after big play all culminating in a fantastic finish.
Bryce Mortenson was the constant for Sky View, with 19 points in the paint, on 8-for-11 shooting. For Layton, it was Dallin Watts early going off from deep, Chandler Obray providing a constant presence and once he got warmed up, Julian Blackmon seizing the spotlight.
The final minute alone was worth the price of admission. Breygan Holbrook drained a 3-pointer for Sky View to pull the Bobcats within on (64-63) with 56 seconds left, but then Obray buried a couple of free throws five seconds later to push the advantage back to three. At the 36-second mark, Mortenson hit 1-of-2 from the line, but the Bobcats tied up the rebound and got the ball back on the alternate possession.
Holbrook then struck again 10 seconds later and was fouled in the process, making the resulting free throw to put Sky View on top 67-66. Then, inexplicably, the Bobcats fouled Blackmon in the backcourt, sending him to the line to bury a pair of free throws that put Layton back on top.
With 15 seconds left, after a quiet offensive second half, Jake Hendricks drove into the lane and dropped in a floater. The lead was back with the Bobcats at 69-68, but it wasn’t over. As the Lancers worked the ball on their final possession, Blackmon attacked the left side of the rim and fought through some traffic to get a layup up and in with four seconds remaining.
Refusing to admit it might be over, Hendricks took the in-bounds pass after a timeout and raced the length of the floor. He got far enough to get a good look from the baseline, but his rushed jumper rimmed out, leaving the defending champs to move on to another semifinal.
Westlake 54, Brighton 48 (OT)
With just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Brighton executed a beautiful back-door lay-up, with Jake Fisher passing to Tate Weichers for the bucket. In a game played at a pace that seemed to favor Brighton, with every basket being like gold, that 42-41 lead was nice to have.
When Westlake’s Asa McCord missed a short jumper 50 seconds later, it seemed like even better news as Weichers was fouled on the rebound and converted twice from the stripe to increase the advantage to 44-41. The Thunder missed again, and with just under a minute to play, Brighton was at the rim with a chance to create separation, but after two misses in tight, Maizen Fausett was fouled in grabbing the board.
Fausett’s two free throws closed the game to a single point and then an unlikely star emerged for Westlake, a trend that carried over into overtime.
With McCord going for 14 points and 14 rebounds and Fausett delivering 13 and 12, it’s perhaps a bit surprising to call the guy who hit 1-of-6 shots from the floor and scored just six points the star of the night, but that honor goes to Chaz Ah You. The reserve guard picked Simi Fehoko’s pocket at midcourt and turned the steal into two chances at the charity stripe, and when he made one of them, the game was tied and eventually headed to overtime.
In the extra session, the Thunder jumped out to a lead but left the door slightly ajar with some missed free throws, and after the Bengals cut the margin to three, Ah You slammed the door shut. With 16 seconds to play, the junior read an entry pass, jumped the passing lane and picked off another huge steal.
This time he buried both freebies and the resulting five-point advantage was what Westlake needed to finally close out a well-prepared Brighton team.
Copper Hills 74, Lone Peak 59
It’s not a shock that this talented Copper Hills team ousted the state’s power program of recent vintage, but perhaps somewhat surprising is the way the Grizzlies did it. Beginning with a 7-0 spurt to start the second quarter, on top of their 19-14 lead after one, the game was never really in doubt.
Future Duke Blue Devil Frank Jackson got his, but the senior who, as it turned out, was playing his final high school game, needed 30 shots to get his 38 points. He scored 20 in the first half, but Copper Hills held the rest of the Knights to just two first-half points in taking a 33-22 lead in the locker room.
The Grizzlies were tenacious and aggressive on both ends of the floor and played like a team that expected to beat mighty Lone Peak. That expectation fueled a fantastic effort at both ends of the floor and a dominating victory.
Preston Sanchez was efficient and sometime spectacular in leading the way. He finished with 25 points, while Charlie Olsen added 16 and Porter Hawkins had 13. The story of this game might be best told in the performance of Stockton Shorts.
The 6-5 junior didn’t shoot it particularly well, finishing with 11 points on 11 shots, but it was the effort and energy with which he played that stood out. He was not going to be denied and the numbers that best tell that story are 17 (rebounds) and four (steals).
One big question for each of the four semifinal matchups set for Friday at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center:
Woods Cross vs. Olympus (4A semifinal 2:30 p.m.)
With both teams now free to get up and down the court like they were unable to do in those quarterfinal slugfests, which shooters will get off the best?Olympus has Matt Lindsey, Isaac Monson, Nate Fox and Miles Keller who all could go off, and don’t forget about the deep ball from reserve Jeremy Dowdell. For Woods Cross, it starts with Trevin Knell, but Jordan Lewis and Cameron Allen will also be key.
Timpview vs. Highland (4A semifinal 4:10 p.m.)
Though with a lot less attention and less explosive athletic ability, Highland’s Rick Schmidt has a similar build and style to Gavin Baxter of Timpview. Their matchup is a chance for Schmidt to get some attention if he has a strong performance. The big issue for the Rams in this one is the likely absence of guard Ryan Lambson, who dislocated his knee cap in the quarterfinal.
Copper Hills vs. Westlake (5A semifinal 5:50 p.m.)
Less than 24 hours after an emotional explosion led to taking out Lone Peak, how will Copper Hills deal with the day after? A second question revolves around the relative strengths of these two teams. This feels like a matchup advantage for Westlake, which has athletic defenders on the perimeter and very good talent in the front court. Outside of big man Porter Hawkins, how will the Grizzlies handle the size?
Bingham vs. Layton (5A semifinal 7:30 p.m.)
Make no mistake, particularly with the arrival of Samuta Avea, this is a year of championship expectations for the Miners. Layton is the defending state champion and it has some athletes, but in this game, it is likely the Lancers will look to slow things down and limit possessions. Teams that have tried to run with Bingham have not generally fared well. That said, the Miners are also tough to handle in the half court because they play great defense and have Yoeli Childs with his back to the basket.