SALT LAKE CITY – It was a performance worthy of a state title game at any classification.
The Bountiful Braves, who made their second trip to the finals in the past four seasons, were the obvious favorite to win it all after posting a 25-1 record. The Orem Tigers, who have eliminated the Braves from the playoffs before, stood in the way between the Braves and their first title in 18 years.
The game came down to the final seconds, when a late foul sent Orem’s Dalton Nixon to the free-throw line with a pair of free throw attempts and two seconds remaining in the game.
Nixon missed them both, Bountiful picked up the rebound, and the clock ticked away the final two seconds to give the Braves a 44-43 win and the state 4A title.
“(Bountiful coach Mike Maxwell) told us to be prepared for him to make it,” said Braves starter Jeff Pollard after Nixon's first attempt missed. “He mainly emphasized defense because he thought we were going into overtime.”
That turned out not to be the case as the Braves battled for the rebound after the missed free throw and the Braves bench rushed the court in celebration.
“It feels great,” said Pollard. “I don’t know what else to say except this is great. It would have been disappointing (to lose) because we know how good we can be and how good we were supposed to be. Tonight we really showed how composed we can be on defense.”
Bountiful held the Tigers scoreless until 4:15 was left in the opening quarter; however, Orem was still able to score 14 points and the Braves found themselves down by five following some tough offensive possessions.
A 3-pointer by Sam Merrill and a coast-to-coast bucket on a steal by Zac Seljaas had the Braves offense running in the second quarter. The back-to-back baskets propelled Bountiful to go on a 9-3 run, eventually leading to a 23-19 halftime lead.
Merrill continued to carry the offense for Braves to begin the second half, scoring all but two of the Bountiful’s third quarter points to keep the lead at four points heading into the final eight minutes.
“He’s just a kid that carries you, and he wants to carry you,” Maxwell said. “When the chips are down, he’ll take it on himself or blame himself when things go wrong, but most of the time it goes right. I know Utah State (University) is going to love him.”
Bountiful had an opportunity to put the game away in the closing seconds, but the Braves were called for a five second violation with 12.4 seconds left in the game.
On the Orem inbound, Orem missed its initial shot and Nixon was able to pull down the rebound and draw a foul.
Maxwell called timeout prior to the first free throw attempt, and then called another after Dalton missed.
“I was glad I had a few time outs to call,” Maxwell said. “I kinda got a bad habit of banking those things for too long, but it was nice to have those extra ones in your pocket to make him think about it in a state tournament. More often than not he’s going to make those, so we were lucky.”
For Merrill, Pollard, and the rest of the team, the state title is a culmination of years of frustration.
“It feels good,” said Merrill. “It’s a relief, but it definitely feels good.”
Merrill scored a game-high 23 points for the Braves. Pollard finished with four points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the win.