HEBER CITY — For whatever reason, the South Summit Wildcats and the Emery Spartans have a knack for meeting up in the state tournament.
The teams have squared off in four of the past six postseasons and did so yet again Saturday afternoon at Wasatch High School.
Unlike the two most recent meetings, three if you include a regular season contest played by the teams on Dec. 15, all of which saw the Spartans emerge victorious, the Wildcats came out on top this time around.
Led by their behemoth of a center Bruce Mitchell, who finished with a team-high 23 points and seven rebounds, South Summit defeated Emery 80-74 in the first round of the 3A state tournament.
“It is nice to be on the winning end every once in a while,” South Summit head coach Dusty Hatch said. “I told (Emery head) coach (Todd) Jeffs that we played them earlier in the season so we wouldn’t have to play them in state. We play them every year it seems like.”
Mitchell was by far the difference for the Wildcats. In their earlier matchup against the Spartans, Mitchell was limited to just three measly points. This time around, he was nearly unstoppable, proving too much for Emery to handle.
“Bruce worked hard,” said Hatch. “He is a load. I don’t know how you move him off the block, and we knew they didn’t have the size to guard him. Our game plan was to get the ball inside to him. We have been preaching that all year. I told them to throw it in and let the big dog eat.”
The Wildcats did just that, and Mitchell responded with his finest performance of the season.
“He has figured it out," said Hatch. “He knows now that the deeper he gets in the post the more successful he is. Earlier in the year, he was catching (the ball) seven feet out, and now he is catching (it) two feet out. I don’t know how anyone can stop him when he gets the ball there.”
Despite Mitchell’s heroics, the game was a close one from the opening tip to the final whistle.
“Every game (against them) is just like that,” said Hatch.
South Summit actually jumped out early in the first quarter, building a six-point lead in opening minutes of the contest.
Ryan Griffin (15 points) led the way with eight points in the frame, and South Summit seemed well on its way to victory.
After a slow start, the threesome proved difficult to handle the rest of the afternoon, with their predictable yet almost unstoppable spin moves carrying them to layup after layup.
Their combined play in the second quarter in particular propelled Emery into the lead at the half, at 33-31.
“They like to do that spin,” said Hatch. “We put in a defense where we’d double (team) and try to take away the spin, but we couldn’t get there quick enough. It was demoralizing for my guys. They came in at halftime and were like, ‘What do we do? We are trying to guard them and are getting fouls.’”
“We made the adjustment to take away the spin,” added Hatch. “I thought they did a good job.”
For every adjustment made by the Wildcats, however, Emery had one of its own, the most significant of which was their defense against Mitchell.
After scoring 12 points in the third quarter, Mitchell was held scoreless in the fourth. If not for the play of Kael Atkinson and Justin Worthen, who combined to score 15 fourth quarter points, as well as some clutch free throws courtesy of senior Jared Dansie, the Wildcats would likely have been eliminated.
Instead, they eked out the victory and will take on the top-seeded Delta Rabbits in the 3A quarterfinals on Feb. 22 at Dixie State University
“We worked hard for eight days,” said Hatch. “We knew we were going to play these guys before we (officially) knew we were going to play them. It is a shame (that we met here) because (Emery) is a really good team. They probably deserve to be in St. George.”
“For my kids, they worked really hard,” he continued. “They deserve this.”