OREM — Third-ranked Union upended top-ranked Emery 51-46 in a mammoth quarterfinal showdown at the 3A state tournament Thursday. The Cougars held the Spartans to over 14 points under their season average to get the win.
"I told them two or three times this week that they couldn't afford to come into this game intimidated," Union head coach Keith Morris said. "We deserve to be here as much as any team."
The difference in the game was rebounding. The undersized Cougars came out with a gameplan, decimating Emery's press and pounding the boards, outrebounding the Spartans 11-4 in the first quarter and 19-7 in the first half. The final tally was 35-19 in favor of Union.
"My teammates did a good job boxing out. Everybody did their jobs, so we were all able to get the rebounds," Cougars' senior Brianna Nielsen said.
"We knew that was a key," Union junior Katie Richens said. "We wanted those rebounds, we wanted that game and we want the championship."
The Spartans pulled their full-court press in the second, but Union still went on a 9-0 run to open the quarter and the Cougars had a four-point cushion heading in to the break. Richens scored 12 points and pulled down six rebounds to lead the Cougars at the half, while seven different players contributed to a balanced Emery squad's scoring total.
The two teams played hardnosed, grind-it-out basketball in the second-half.
The Cougars extended their lead to 11 points at two different points in the fourth quarter, the second time with 3:38 remaining in the game, but the Spartans continued to fight back into shooting distance. Jessica Murray hit a pair of threes in the final minutes and Taylor Mann racked up eight late points for Emery, but Union pulled away with free throws.
The Cougars only had one fourth-quarter field goal, but scored 16 times off foul shots to hold off a furious Emery rally. Richens alone was 8 of 10 from the line.
"I love to be able to do whatever my team needs," Richens said. "But I really love to be the go-to person in pressure situations."
Richens scored 27 and pulled down nine rebounds to lead Union, while Mann finished with 13 points and six rebounds for Emery.
Headed into Thursday's game, both teams had only dropped a game a piece all year. Emery lost a one-point nailbiter to Richfield in mid-January, and Union lost a one-pointer of its own, to Wasatch, also in mid-January.
"We're disappointed we had to play them this early," Morris said. "But the parity in 3A, at least on paper, is unlike anything I've ever seen. There are about eight teams that could win on any given night."
Union will meet Juab at 2:30 p.m. in the 3A semifinals at Utah Valley University on Friday.