View the full online photo gallery
WEST VALLEY CITY — This time last year, on the bus ride home from a play-in game loss to Mountain Crest, Orem head coach Golden Holt made a bold statement to his team.
The Tigers had just finished a 7-15 season and spirits were low.
"I did something a little backwards than most coaches," he said. "I told the boys we would win a state championship this (next) year after our season."
If the statement were to come true, it would be the first championship for Orem in 56 years. With a 44-36 semifinal victory over No. 2-ranked Bountiful on Friday, they have a chance to end the drought and hoist the 4A trophy.
The Tigers picked up the win by executing their plan and believing they were capable of the advancement. According to Holt, that "belief" was something he tried to instill in the young team throughout the season.
"56 years and no championship. … There hasn't been a whole lot of believing going on in Orem," Holt said. "I felt like it was important to plant that seed. We've been calling on that all year."
With their trip to the finals and just one loss all year, the Tigers have exemplified their coach's mantra.
"The boys have believed," he said. "They have done everything I've asked them to and here we are March 3rd."
The victory was no easy feat, as the semifinal contest pitted the No. 1 seed in Region 8 against the No. 1 seed in Region 6.
"We were excited to see Bountiful," point guard Zach Hunsaker said, noting that the Tigers knew of their similar record and were well aware of the team's top ranking. "We had heard all about them," he said. "We knew it was going to be tough."
The Braves came out strong in the first quarter, jumping to an early 4-0 lead behind Brock Yates. It was, however, one of the few times they would hold the advantage and the Tigers answered back with a 7-0 run to end the quarter.
They carried the momentum into the second, outscoring the Braves 8-5 and carrying the 15-9 advantage at halftime. Offense was sparse for both teams in the half and the two battled it out in true tournament fashion — neither one was willing to give up the easy bucket.
"It's playing Bountiful in the semifinals in the Maverik Center," Holt said of the low score. "It's a different environment."
Though the Tigers carried the lead at half, the Braves were determined to stay in the fight. They enjoyed a rally at the end of the third quarter and were able to outscore Orem, 14-8.
The run was short-lived, however, as the Tigers ran away with the game in the final quarter. Josh Pollard laid it in and picked up the foul for a crucial 3-point play, and Dalton Nixon powered his way through the middle for a two-handed dunk.
"I think we just settled," Pollard said of the Orem surge. "We were shooting outside a lot and once we got it inside, we went to the free-throw line every time."
The Tigers went 26-of-38 from the line compared to Bountiful's 4-of-8. Their free throws down the stretch widened the gap, but their ability to get to the line early on in the contest was what really played a factor.
"Some of our strategy is to go inside early in the half so we get fouls and get to the bonus," Holt said. "We think we're a good free throw team. We were able to get to the bonus and then step up … that was part of the plan."
Defensively, the Tigers practiced a tight man-to-man and denied the Braves' their in-and-out game. The team held the Braves' scoring threat — Yates — to eight points.
According to Pollard, Yates became his responsibility. "That was my job all game," he said. "They told me, 'limit him and we'll win." Pollard did a great job defending the rim but provided an offensive spark as well. He earned the double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
"He was terrific," Holt said. "He sometimes does all the dirty work, does whatever it takes to win and doesn't get much of the spotlight. Tonight he was big and he did get the spotlight. That senior leadership really showed itself tonight."
The rest of the offense was well dispersed, making the all-around team victory that much sweeter. Nixon and Hunsaker earned eight points apiece, Jordan Darger earned seven, and Quinn Peters had six.
Brit Harding led the Braves with two from beyond the 3-point arc and 14 total points. Dain Murdock added eight points and contributed heftily on defense as he held Hunsaker scoreless in the first and picked up three crowd-awing blocks.
The Tigers take on Olympus in the championship game Saturday in the Maverik Center.