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Pressure? Not for Provo

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Fans and players swarm Provo's Tai Wesley, center, after he led his team to victory in the 4A state championship game Saturday at the E-Center, the school's 15th title.

Fans and players swarm Provo’s Tai Wesley, center, after he led his team to victory in the 4A state championship game Saturday at the E-Center, the school’s 15th title.

Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News

Pressure is a funny thing in sports. Some have it, some don't. Some feel it, some don't.

It appeared to be the difference Saturday night in the boys Class 4A title game.

The Provo Bulldogs, for the first time in years feeling no pressure to win a state basketball title, rode that easy feeling this week to their sixth state crown under coach Craig Drury, fourth title in the past decade, 11th since 1972 and 15th in school history. The Bulldogs, the No. 4 seed from Region 6, capped a storybook ending by knocking off fellow league foe Payson 46-36 at the E-Center.

"This is wonderful," Drury said. "This time I didn't feel any pressure and just felt like we could go out and play."

A month ago, the Bulldogs, sitting at 4-5 in their league, were not even a lock to make the state tournament. In one week of tournament play, however, they beat three No. 1 seeds and another team that finished higher than them in the league standings.

"We had a lot of areas we needed to patch up, but we patched them up and came to the state tournament strong and playing with unity," said tournament MVP Tai Wesley.

Payson came into the game not having had a team in the championship game since 1972 and never having won a state basketball crown. A lifetime drought and 30-plus years of not even getting that final shot had the entire town in a frenzy. Instead, it was another heartbreak ending for the sentimental favorite.

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"Maybe that Payson's never won one got to them, I don't know. But we seemed to close out well when they didn't," Drury said.

Perhaps the Lions were feeling some heat, but it's clear they missed the crucial shots down the stretch of a tight game — while Provo didn't. With Provo ahead 35-34 with four minutes remaining in the game, the Lions managed only two more free throws the remainder of the game. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, executed almost flawlessly in protecting their lead, tossing in one more field goal and sinking seven late free throws to ice it.

"Down the stretch we had some opportunities and the shots just didn't go tonight," Payson coach Dan Lunt said.

The shots Lunt referred to were the front end of a one-and-one and two open jumpers near the two-minute mark that could have trimmed Provo's lead back to one.

The story has been the same in every Provo game this week — Wesley. The Bulldogs' entire game goes through him. He turned in a dandy Saturday night. His 14 points might not stand out, but 11 assists from a center might. He also grabbed seven rebounds and had three steals. His assist to sophomore Tanner Gregory to give Provo a late three-point lead was the bucket that seemed to panic Payson.

"Wesley gets all the credit, but those kids have got to make those shots, and this week they did it," Drury said.

Payson never trailed in the first quarter, thanks to a strong effort from Blake Francom. The junior forward nailed a 3-pointer and four free throws in the period. Brett Hiatt's layup at the buzzer put the Lions up 13-10 after one.

Provo was patient in letting Wesley find the right opportunity - and he was masterful. The result was a 13-4 second period for the Bulldogs, sending them to the locker room leading 23-17. The opening minutes of the third period were crucial to the game's outcome. On three straight possessions Wesley fed the ball back out to Garrett Groesbeck, who nailed three jumpers — giving Provo a 12-point lead.

The Lions finished the period on a 10-2 run to get back in the game. When Tyler Newbold nailed a deep trey with 4:06 left in the fourth, it was anybody's game. But the Bulldogs' poise in the final minutes put their names on the championship trophy, and sent the Lions home disappointed.

"It's a bit of heartbreaker, but we've got a great bunch of kids and we'll be back," Lunt said.

The game's key statistic was assists — Provo had 16 and Payson had five. Behind Wesley, Gregory scored 12 and Groesbeck eight. Francom led Payson with 17, followed by Newbold with 12.


E-mail: jimr@desnews.com