PAYSON - Considering the history of boys basketball in Payson, it's easy to understand why the local folks flooded the court Wednesday night for a celebratory cutting down of the nets.
Even though the Lions have been one of the state's top hoop programs for the past decade, the school has still experienced decades of close-call frustrations. They've been ranked No. 1 before, and they've even played for a state championship. But before thrashing the Orem Tigers 70-50 at home Wednesday to finish atop Region 7 with an 8-2 record, they've never won a region title when competing in a league with the other Utah Valley teams.
"It's been a long time coming," said Payson assistant Jim Griffin, who's been coaching at the school for 25 years.
Actually, the Lions did win a region title about 20 years ago while competing in a division with teams from Southern Utah. But as far as all of the current coaches know, this year's outright title is the school's first when playing against the local squads.
"The goal the kids set at the start of the year was to win a region championship, and we accomplished that tonight," Lions coach Dan Lunt said.
However, the Lions are by no means satisfied. Several players on this year's team were on the team that played in the state title game two seasons ago, and they want to take it one step further this season by adding a state crown to the region crown.
"They got a taste of that, and they want to get back there next week," Lunt said. "But there's one thing I know, championships are won on defense. You've got to put the ball in the hole, but if you can't stop people you don't have a chance."
Defense certainly made the difference in rolling over the Tigers on Wednesday. Orem, which drops to 6-4 and will enter the playoffs as a No. 3 seed, struggled all night to get uncontested looks because of Payson's pressure up top and help defense in the paint. The Lions also scored several baskets in transition off of turnovers.
"I thought defensively from the start we caused them a lot of problems," Lunt said.
Neither team looked in sync offensively in the first half, but the Lions held a seven-point halftime lead by holding the Tigers to 20 first-half points. But Payson came out smoking in the third with McKay Massey and Jordan Buys hitting two quick 3-pointers. When Massey added a put-back basket the Lions were suddenly up 37-22. Another bomb by Brent Staheli moments later pushed the margin to 16.
The Tigers, with some inside hoops from Mike Hall, Timo Valimaki and Daniel Hockersmith, closed the gap to 11, but that's as close as they could get. The Lions pulled away for good with a 11-0 run to start the fourth. Massey's third trey put the Lions up 55-33, and then Buys banked in two quick layups to increase the lead to 24.
"If we can build on this and continue to play with this kind of intensity, good things are bound to happen," Lunt said of Payson's postseason chances.
Massey finished with a game-high 22, while Josh Peery added 15 and Buys chipped in 14. Hall and Valimaki scored nine each for Orem.