Chants of “this is our house” from the Alta student section echoed through the Dee Events Center as the clock descended to zero in Saturday’s 5A state title game.
Though their home gym was just under 40 miles away, the Hawks felt at home as they hoisted the championship trophy over their heads — the fifth in the school’s history and the first in 13 years.
“I can’t even speak right now,” Alta’s Jaxon Johnson said. “You work all year for this. I’m speechless, it’s just amazing.”
With pieces of the recently cut net in hand or mouth, the fourth-seeded Hawks posed after the game in front of the scoreboard that displayed the 64-53 final score. It was the capstone moment for a season of growth and realized potential for Alta, which had just one senior — Nash Hinck — playing rotational minutes in the title game.
Having played Timpview twice in region play, Alta coach Travis Ohrn said the team knew what kind of game was waiting for them Saturday. It was going to be a battle of physicality.
While Alta certainly wasn’t lacking in physicality, the Hawks knew they couldn’t fight fire with fire. They had to move the ball and play the same brand of basketball they had played all season long.
“We just shared the ball,” Ohrn said. “We knew they were going to try and play that ‘bully-ball’ style and try and back you down into the paint, take charges. We emphasized playing off of two feet and we just found the right guys at the right moment.”
Alta’s interconnectivity on the offensive end showed on the stat sheet as well as on the floor, as it notched 18 assists on 25 made field goals.
The cerebral approach from each player led to good looks all night, with the team shooting 61% on the night. Alta actually managed to outpace the physical Thunderbirds in the paint 42-26 for the game.
The brand of efficient, distribution-based basketball wouldn’t be one you’d expect to see from a team stocked with underclassmen playing the majority of the minutes.
“We work on it a lot and we just know the game of basketball,” said Alta’s Carter Doleac, who scored most of his points after making timely back cuts or slashes and then finishing.
“We just trust each other and that’s how we can execute at such a high level.”
According to Ohrn and Johnson, it was an early third quarter stretch by Doleac that ended up being the difference maker for the Hawks.
After Timpview started the game hot, shooting 4 for 6 from the 3-point line in the first quarter to lead by as much as eight points, the Hawks knew they had to settle down and rally. Johnson admitted that nerves may have played a role in the slower start from Alta.
The Hawks managed to get the game close and string together a few stops in the second quarter, but the margin separating the teams was still too close for comfort for Alta, which held a one-point lead at the halftime break. The Hawks held the narrow lead for just over two minutes of first half.
Ohrn said he told his guys in the halftime break that they didn’t come just to play in a championship game, they came to win a championship game.
Apparently the message worked, as the Hawks came out with a noticeably different resolve in the second half’s opening minutes.
In a stretch that included back-to-back and-one plays, Doleac himself outscored Timpview 10-2 on his own, as his teammates managed to find him for multiple momentum-swinging buckets. Less than two minutes into the quarter, the Hawks suddenly found themselves with a nine-point lead.
“Doleac is not a very emotional guy, so when I saw him turn and flex at our bench after one of his and-ones, I turned to the coaches and said, ‘guys, we’re winning this,’” Ohrn said.
The Hawks went on to outscore Timpview 20-9 in the third period and seize control of the game, though the Thunderbirds certainly made an effort to keep things interesting.
An acrobatic and-one layup from Timpview’s Take Uluilakepa cut the Alta lead to just 4 points with 4:31 remaining and the Thunderbirds decided to increase the pressure, defending Alta the full 94 feet.
But in the same way that got them the lead in the first place, Alta made the right plays at the right time over the final minutes, making free throws and key passes that helped put the game — and the title — on ice.
Alta’s Ace Reiser tied a bow on the result with his dribble-drive and no-look pass to Doleac on the low block for an easy bucket, giving the Hawks a nine-point lead with 40 seconds remaining. For the first time all night, the booming cheers from the Alta fans were bereft of any degree of anxiousness — they knew their team had just won the title.
In the end, the talent of the Hawks was just too great for Timpview, which couldn’t keep pace for the full 32 minutes.
Doleac finished with a game-high 24 points for the Hawks, while Johnson stuffed the statsheet with 15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists (zero turnovers), five steals and three blocks.
Reiser — who scored 21 points in Alta’s semifinal upset victory over Olympus — notched nine points and nine assists for the Hawks.
“We have so many good players on this team and all they want to do is win,” Ohrn said. “We’ve had different guys lead us in scoring so many times.”
“Jaxon Johnson is the best player in the state and he could average 30 points a game if he wanted to, but he wants to win and he’s going to make the winning plays. Man, I just love these guys and I’m so proud of them.”
Timpview had three players reach double-figures in Dean Rueckert (12 points), James Rust (11 points) and Uluilakepa (10 points).
With the 13-year title drought now ended, the junior-filled team, which finished the season 24-4, will return most of its production next season.
When asked if the Hawks will be ready to try and defend the title next season, Doleac was confident in his answer.
“Of course, of course,” the junior said. “Let’s get it.”
5A Deseret News All-Tournament Team
MVP — Jaxon Johnson, Alta
Ace Reiser, Alta
Dutch DowDell, Olympus
Carter Doleac, Alta
James Rust, Timpview
Anthony Felesi, Orem