RICHFIELD — For the second year in a row, the 4A boys basketball state champion will come from Region 9.
We still don’t know which team will ultimately hoist the first-place trophy at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield Wednesday afternoon, but we do know it will be either Cedar or Desert Hills, both of which survived tough challenges in Tuesday’s semifinal games.
Such an outcome was in doubt deep into both teams’ matchups Tuesday evening. No. 6 Cedar let a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter slip into a single-possession one late in the game, while No. 4 Desert Hills watched an eight-point advantage turn into a one-point disadvantage with less than a minute to play. Both teams needed late-game heroics to fend off their opponents and advance to the championship game.
For Desert Hills, Reggie Newby landed a 3-pointer from the corner with less than 10 seconds left to put the Thunder up by two, which ended up being just enough to upset No. 1 Juan Diego, 52-50. For Cedar, guard Ty Harrison played hero for the second day in a row, intercepting a pass on Ridgeline’s final possession, drawing a foul and sinking a pair of free throws in the final seconds to ice the 66-61 victory.
The Cedar vs. Desert Hills final sets the stage for a rematch of two of the top-scoring offenses in the 4A class. Both teams broke 100 points in a double-overtime thriller back in late January, the first time a Region 9 squad had done so in more than 15 years.
Wednesday’s marquee matchup is one that almost didn’t happen, as there were more than a few moments Tuesday night where it didn’t seem like either Cedar or Desert Hills would survive to play another day.
“I don’t know what to say at this moment,” Cedar head coach Mark Esplin said following the Reds’ win over Ridgeline. “You’re glad to get through.”
Esplin watched his Reds battle through three quarters, pull ahead in the fourth and nearly let it all slip away.
Although Cedar rarely played from behind, the persistent Riverhawks were always in the rear-view mirror. In this case, the object was definitely closer than it appeared. The Reds led the entire first half but watched an eight-point lead shrivel to a one-point edge in the second quarter and a two-point lead at the half.
After a controversial decision to award Ridgeline the ball to start the second half after a jump ball concluded the second quarter, the Riverhawks finally took their first lead. Kaden Cox drained a 3-pointer while Esplin pleaded his case with the scorer’s table.
The teams went blow-for-blow throughout the third quarter. Each possession resulted in points at both ends of the floor until finally Ridgeline was called for traveling around the 4:30 mark. Cedar scored 15 and Ridgeline scored 17 to end the third quarter tied 46-46.
Cedar stormed out of the gate in the fourth quarter with 11 quick points. Everything clicked offensively and a Luke Armstrong dunk gave the Reds momentum and energy to seemingly close it out. The lead the Reds held after that stretch was the highest in the game, 57-46.
But Ridgeline was not going to go down easy. This was the same team that had whittled away a double-digit deficit against defending state champion Dixie in Monday’s quarterfinals. The Riverhawks made it back to within one possession of Cedar with just over a minute to play.
Dallin Grant hit a pair of free throws to put Cedar up 64-61 with 21 seconds to play, which forced Ridgeline to play for the 3-pointer. Then Harrison did his heroics, making a game-clinching steal. Against Crimson Cliffs the day before, Harrison had nailed a put-back dunk to secure the win for Cedar.
Harrison finished with 13 points for Cedar. Grant led all scorers with 16, Treyton Tebbs scored 14 with four 3-pointers and Zab Santana had 11.
“We took care of the things we needed to,” Esplin said.
Things were more tense for Desert Hills. The Thunder watched an eight-point lead suddenly evaporate in the last two minutes of the game and suddenly had to score or watch their season end.
Newby managed to sink his 3-pointer from the corner – after missing from the same spot just seconds earlier – and the Thunder live to fight another day.
“We’ve had several of those this season where we win it, try to give it away, win it, try to give it away and end up winning it,” Desert Hills head coach Chris Allred said. “So we’ve had practice doing that all season long. But it’s not good on the ticker, I’ll tell you that much.”
Desert Hills’ usually potent offense was stifled by No. 1 Juan Diego’s defense throughout the contest. Preston Vandermyde ended up as the Thunder’s top scorer with 12 points, a role he did not take often this season. Newby added 10 points and was the only other member of the team to score in double digits.
The Thunder turned a two-point deficit at the end of the first quarter into a three-point lead by halftime and the game remained close. The teams were dead even at 36-36 as the horn sounded at the end of the third quarter.
Desert Hills ended up making a late push for a big lead, going up by eight with two minutes to play following a nine-point run. Juan Diego then countered with nine straight points of their own to go up 50-49 with less than a minute to go.
After Juan Diego missed a pair of free throws that could’ve pushed its lead to three, Desert Hills quickly pushed it up the court for the winning shot. Newby’s first attempt from the corner missed, but in the ensuing scuffle for the rebound, Desert Hills was awarded a jump ball. That set up what ended up being the winning play, as Newby redeemed himself by taking the inbounds pass and swishing the go-ahead trey from wide-open in the corner.
“It was not what we drew up, but we were happy with the results,” Allred said. “At that point in time, you can’t pass up an open look like that. I was glad it was (Newby). He’s shown the ability to bounce back after missing some shots early to make some shots late in games, so that was the guy we needed taking the shot.”
Juan Diego managed to the ball to midcourt before calling a timeout with 3.5 seconds on the clock. Soaring Eagle star freshman Malick Diallo just missed a buzzer-beater from deep, banking the ball off the inside of the back iron.
The Desert Hills and Cedar wins on Tuesday make for an all-Region 9 final, and a good matchup at that. Both teams ended in a three-way tie with Crimson Cliffs for second place in the region standings, all with 10-4 records.
Cedar and Desert Hills split their season series, with Desert Hills taking the first round 101-100 in double overtime on Jan. 27. The Reds then defended their home court in Cedar City on Feb. 19 with a 70-65 victory that saw Cedar lead by as many as 15 points.
The championship game’s tipoff from the Sevier Valley Center is slated for 2:30 p.m.
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