CEDAR CITY — Two moments in time dominated the conversation after Dixie captured the 2016 3A State Basketball title Saturday evening with a 65-57 victory over Juan Diego at SUU’s Centrum Arena.
“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” Dixie coach Ryan Cuff said. “Last year we lost to Pine View in the state championship and that hurt a lot. These kids have used that loss, that bad taste in their mouths, to fuel their drive to this state championship. I am so proud of these kids. I remember what it feels like as a player to win a state championship. As a coach it’s special. But it’s more special for them. I’m so proud of every one of them. This is something they’ll never forget.”
The date was Feb. 28, 2015, a day that saw the stars align for Pine View in a 46-43 state-championship win over Dixie. Tyler Bennett, Richard Guymon, Malachi Otis and several other of Dixie’s current stars had to watch as the Panthers celebrated and cut down the nets at the Maverik Center. Although it is a painful memory, it served Dixie well for the last 364 days.
“We’ve talked about it every day since then,” Bennett said. “That gave us lot of motivation. We had other smaller goals, but the only real goal was to take state and make up for last year.”
Bennett let his game take care of that Saturday afternoon. He was transcendent, scoring pretty much at will, with the Soaring Eagle helpless to stop the onslaught by the 3A’s leading scorer. Most of his points came in the lane on slashing drives between two or three defenders. He was 10 of 14 from the floor and 10 of 12 from the free throw line in the 30-point display.
“Tyler found a way to get to the basket — he’s so creative,” Cuff said. “It’s just been an honor to coach him and all the other guys. Tyler is such a playmaker and he makes those around him better.”
The Flyers led wire-to-wire, pushing out to a 17-point advantage at one point in the third quarter. Bennett only attempted two outside shots. With Juan Diego trying to trap most of the game, Bennett, nicknamed ‘The Finisher,’ exploited the open court. He repeatedly beat the trap, dribbling through traffic and out-maneuvering JDHS’s big men for easy scores.
He also helped feed big man Richard Guymon, who had four dunks in the contest, including a breakaway jackhammer with under a minute to play.
“It was really fun playing in this game,” Guymon said after a reporter asked him if he liked having his own personal slam dunk contest. “The kind of defense they play made it so I had some great opportunities.”
Just a junior, Guymon played limited minutes in last season’s runner-up campaign. But he also felt the sting of coming up just short.
“We’ve worked hard every day since that (loss to Pine View),” he said. “We knew we still had a lot of returning seniors that were really good players. That’s all we’ve been thinking about all year. This moment right here, cutting down the nets.”
Juan Diego, the Region 11 champion, did not go down without a fight. The Soaring Eagle starting trapping in the back court and created enough problems for the Flyers to cause a timeout or two from Cuff. Maliik Fagan-Foster (21 points, three assists) converted a 3-point play to bring JDHS within nine with under two minutes left in the game. And J.D. Ahlstrom’s 3-point play with 46.8 seconds left pulled the Soaring Eagle as close as they’d been since the first half at 59-53.
Juan Diego quickly fouled Bennett, but he nailed both free throws to make it 61-53 and Guymon provided the state championship exclamation point a moment later. Bennett rebounded an Ahlstrom miss, dribbled through traffic and found a streaking Guymon all alone at the offensive end. The high-flying Flyer jammed it home to push the lead back to 10 and spark an early celebration in the Centrum Arena.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Dixie’s James Eardley said. “It feels like I’m going to practice in the morning. Everyday we envision this. We talked about it every single day. I don’t think there has been a day gone by that we haven’t said, ‘We’re winning state this year.’ There was no other goal in mind. It’s amazing. It’s indescribable. We’re champions. It’s something I’ll always have.
Cuff also paid homage to the last team to win state for Dixie, the 1970 Flyers, who won the Class A title.
“This is for all the kids that I’ve coached before and all the past players, they are part of this as well, all the way back to when they won that state championship in 1970,” he said. “We felt that. We can feel it in the locker room. We felt it last night when we had to make that run to get back against Bear River.”
Bennett, who will certainly be named the state MVP in the coming days after leading 3A in scoring and dominating the championship game, had one other reason to smile Saturday night.
“I have my mission call, but I haven’t opened it yet,” he said. “I told my family that I didn’t want to open sad, so we had to win. I’m opening it tonight. It will be fun — a great day all around.” (Note: Bennett opened his LDS Mission call and will be serving in Washington, D.C., speaking French)
Dixie, 23-4, won the most games in program history this season, but will have to reload next year as the Flyers have eight seniors, including Bennett, Eardley, Malachi Otis, Zak Harrah, Tanner Larkin, Connor Dyches, Isaac Swenson and Nate Crockett.
Juan Diego concludes the season with an 18-9 record. Along with Fagan-Foster’s 21 points, Avery Ames chipped in 14 and Ahlstrom had eight. The Soaring Eagle graduate three seniors, Fagan-Foster, Ames and Alexander Hoffman.
In consolation action, Logan defeated Desert Hills 48-34 Saturday morning.
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