Every year, the 5A high school girls basketball state tournament is one to look forward to. Sixteen teams enter Salt Lake Community College with dreams and aspirations of hoisting the state championship hardware.
From favorites to longshots, every team has a chance to go the distance and win the state championship. East High head coach Olosaa Solovi says that the tournament has a different feel than the regular season.
“I believe it is. I think it’s a mistake if you don’t treat the tournament in that manner," he said. "I think everybody coming in the tournament has a chance to win. If you come in the tournament with the mentality of the season, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening,” Solovi said.
Leading the pack is East High School, which has undergone a dramatic turnaround as a program since Solovi — who is also on East’s football staff — took over the reins in the 2016-17 season. Immediately, things changed around the Leopards’ program. The season prior to Solovi becoming head coach, East finished fifth in Region 5, posting a losing record of 8-12. In Solovi’s first season with his new staff, the Leopards placed fourth in Region 5, but finished with a winning record of 15-10 and defeated top-seeded Mountain View in the first round of the 2017 4A state tournament, winning their first state tournament game since 2008. This season, East has lost just two games, finsihing with a record of 19-2.
So, what’s been behind the sudden resurgence of East? Good coaching and a group of tough athletes committed to defense and team play.
“I would say it’s just a trust and hard work within each other, these guys have come a long way. This program has had a culture of losing before we came in last year. I adopted the mentality that we have — I coach football, too — and we just kind of brought that mentality that we have with football, and brought it to basketball,” Solovi said. “It’s more of just an attitude shift. Being confident, working hard, believing — and all of those things kind of help us with some of these wins and just being better overall.”
For the first time in a long time, East one of the favorites to win the 5A title. The Leopards have the third-best offense in 5A and the best defense in the class, at least according to points per game. East, on average, is outscoring its competition by 21 points. Four Leopard players — Liana Kaitu’u, Lealani Falatea, Deserae Falatea and Lani Taliauli — are averaging double-digit scoring.
But East is far from the only contender in the loaded 5A tournament.
East, Timpview, Corner Canyon, Roy, Skyline, Viewmont, Provo and Woods Cross are all ranked in the top 20 in the Deseret News statewide girls basketball rankings.
Timpview enters the tournament with momentum, reeling off seven straight wins, including a win over Corner Canyon. The T-Birds have the best offense in 5A, led by junior Shalyn Fano, who is averaging 16.4 points per game.
Corner Canyon has lost just two times all season, and has the second-best offense, powered by junior Kemery Martin, who averages 21.4 points per game.
Roy is coming off a big stretch, as it defeated Viewmont and Bountiful. Senior Josie Williams is putting up an astounding 25.8 points per game for the Royals.
The defending 5A champion, Skyline, is back for another shot at the title. The Eagles have 5A’s second-best defense, and their offense is headlined by Madison Grange, who averages 15.1 points per game.
Viewmont is led by Clemson-bound Mercedes Staples, who scores 22.5 points per game. The Vikings have lost just three games all season.
Provo’s offense is all about Lavender Briggs, who is putting up 25.5 points per game for the Bulldogs’ fourth-ranked offense.
Woods Cross rounds out the list of favorites, led by senior Sara Noel, averaging 16.6 points per game.