SANDY — On the road, against the second-ranked team in 5A, No. 3 Hillcrest simply refused to let the bubble burst on its improbable season.
Hillcrest (5-0, 15-1) shook off some early nerves, played solid defense and ultimately stormed Alta's court after an impressive 51-48 victory over the Hawks (4-1, 13-3) Tuesday for its state-leading 15th straight victory.
"If you go into a game thinking you're maybe not good enough, you're not going to win. You've got to go into the game knowing you can win," said Hillcrest junior Donnie Lao, who finished with a team-high 17 points.
In a game where there were virtually no uncontested shots and both teams still shot around 50 percent, the difference was clearly at the foul line.
Hillcrest connected on 14-of-18 free throws, including 7 of 10 in the fourth quarter, whereas Alta struggled, making only 8 of 16, including a paltry 5 of 12 in the final quarter.
"The mark of this team this year is we just find a way. Whoever is hot or what ever defensive stop we need, it's happened so far," said Hillcrest coach Brad Tingey.
The formula for success at Alta wasn't always pretty, especially in the first quarter as Alta capitalized on four straight Hillcrest turnovers to go ahead 7-0. Tingey quickly called a time-out and reminded his team that the game was 32 minutes long, and to settle down. He even temporarily benched starter Nate Oliphant, who, despite having some of the best hands on the team, fumbled it away on several occasions early on.
"I definitely think we were a little bit nervous," said Tingey. "We just wanted to make sure we got through the first quarter. Things can blow up in your face pretty quick in this gym."
The gritty Huskies never let things get out of control, and only trailed 13-8 after the first quarter. Hillcrest cut the lead to 25-23 by halftime, and took its first lead at 29-27 just three minutes into the third quarter.
Oliphant pushed Hillcrest's lead to 39-35 with a baseline 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter, a lead the Huskies would never relinquish — even though they seemingly tried with seven fourth-quarter turnovers.
Leading 41-40 midway through the fourth, Hillcrest extended its lead to 48-42 thanks to a 3-pointer by Ryan Brimley and four points by Lao.
The Hawks clawed back to 48-46, but they could've taken the lead with better foul shooting. During a 40-second stretch in the final two minutes, Alta attempted six foul shots, but only made two.
Hillcrest wasn't immune to the pressure either. Of the Huskies four missed free throws the entire game, three came in the final minute. Nonetheless, when Cutler's 3-pointer at the buzzer rattled away, the Huskies had claimed early bragging rights in Region 2.
Despite the win, don't think for a second that the Huskies are thinking region title.
"With my experience at Hillcrest, we don't take anything for granted," said Tingey. "We know we have to earn what we get."