TAYLORSVILLE — When the Brighton Bengals found themselves trailing Fremont in the semifinals of the 5A girls basketball tournament, it wasn't strategy that ran through their minds.
It was Jara Ludlow, whose initials are stitched on their jerseys. And it's her number 20 that will inspire the Bengals as they play for the state championship for the first time since 1990 against Skyline.
Ludlow, the blonde guard with an electric smile, would have been a senior and surely a key component in the Bengals success if she hadn't been killed in a car accident last Memorial Day weekend. The team has said over and over they want to win a state championship for Jara, and that goal was in serious jeopardy Friday afternoon at Salt Lake Community College.
Trailing by five with about five minutes to go, Vanessa Hutson came out of a timeout and pumped her fists. She reminded her team who they were winning for, and then she hit a layup and a foul shot that brought the team within a basket. Hutson then tossed a no-look pass to forward Danielle Newell, who laid the ball in and tied the game at 47 apiece.
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The teams went back and forth until fouls did Fremont in, and Brighton's lead was finally insurmountable. The final score: 46-41. Hutson led the team offensively with 20 points, while Newell added another 10. But it was Marissa Vandersteen, who's played reduced minutes due to the addition of forward Alofa Toia in January, who was key in the comeback.
"Marrisa did a great job," said Bengal coach Jim Gresh. "She got two big rebounds, and two huge foul shots there at the end."
Vandersteen said it has been tough going from starter to coming off the bench, but she said it's her friends who've helped her make the best of the situation.
"It's hard," she said after finishing with five points and eight rebounds. "But everybody just kept telling me to keep my head up and believe in myself. And I do. And I believe in my team and my coaches."
Vandersteen actually started Friday because Toia has been recovering from a sprained ankle. Toia played just 11 minutes but made a huge impact defensively with three blocked shots. Vandersteen said in making the most of her minutes, she just tries to control her breathing, which calms her.
Then, like her teammates, she remembers her goal.
"I just thought of Jara," Vandersteen said. "We were worried, but we just try to keep the bench positive, and that makes our players more positive."
The Bengals began to gain ground on the Silver Wolves when they began double-teaming their guards who run a weave pattern on offense.
"That seemed to help," Gresh said. It also helped that Fremont's Keli Flinders was in foul trouble and had to sit more than half of the third quarter and part of the fourth. She finished with just two points. Her teammates picked up the slack nicely for a while, with Kim Jones scoring 18 points, including four 3-pointers.
The difference in foul shot opportunities was huge with Brighton shooting 36 to Fremont's seven attempts.
"I thought my kids really came out and played hard," said Fremont coach Larry Hadley. "We got the lead up to 11. In the second half we never got into a flow because the whistle kept blowing. Flinders got in trouble and that slowed our offense down a lot ... This team worked hard from day one. For the juniors it's a great experience. For the seniors it's a pretty sad way to go out."
In 5A's other semifinal game Skyline did what it hasn't been able to do thus far in the tournament — get the lead early. The Eagles never relinquished it, and their full-court press seemed to tire an already fatigued Layton squad. The Eagles won 43-32.
"We knew we couldn't play catch-up with Layton," said Skyline coach Deb Bennett. "We came out in a press, and our defensive pressure got us to this spot. We had to stop their guards from shooting the ball. Our pressure is tiring for people."
Only one Layton player scored in double figures and that was center Brooke Nelson, who finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Turnovers killed the Lancers as they finished with 30 to Skyline's 15.
The Eagles finally got a big offensive game from guard Amy Young, who finished with 14 points.
"Amy's a great player," Bennett said. "She knows the sport and she keeps our kids in the offense and handles the ball well. It was nice she relaxed on her shot."
It will be the first time either Bennett or Gresh have coached in a championship game, Skyline hasn't won a title since 1980 and Brighton has never won a girls basketball championship. They came in second in 1990.