Typically the opening rounds of the state basketball tournament feature a fair amount of uneven matchups, but the No. 8-No. 9 game is often the fixture that has a matchup that is virtually even.
Thursday night’s game between No. 8 seed Bountiful and No. 9 seed Skyline demonstrated the assumption that these two teams were in fact evenly matched. By a score of 50-46, Skyline — which trailed Bountiful by as many as 14 points — came out on top, placing itself into the 5A quarterfinal round.
At the beginning of the game, however, Bountiful looked like it may have been granted too low of a seed. Jordyn Harvey scored just seven seconds into the game and later she followed up two of Lizzy McConkie’s early 3-pointers with a 3-pointer of her own as the Braves bursted for a 14-3 run to conclude the first quarter, gaining a 12 point advantage.
“Obviously, we didn’t play any defense in the first quarter,” said Skyline head coach Sam White. “We just let people go right by us and there was basically no defense played by us in the first and even into the second quarter.”
Skyline was able to somewhat improve its overall play in the second quarter, cutting the 12-point deficit to seven following a buzzer-beating layup by Abbie Leonard aided by a defensive breakdown from Bountiful.
“We told them at halftime that we need to adjust and try to keep our people in front of us. We really wanted to limit them to just one shot and focus on securing the rebound,” said White.
The halftime message seemed to hit home for the Skyline players, as they were able to hold Bountiful to just five third quarter points and 14 points over the course of the whole second half.
As has been the case so often this year for the Eagles, Skyline benefited from a consistent performance from its center Tina Njike. Njike, who finished with a game high 19 points, helped keep Skyline in the game when it struggled, and also remained a major contributor when the Eagles fought to come back.
Just a sophomore, Njike looked beyond her years in the post, displaying great footwork to free herself up within the paint.
“(Njike) is just so strong,” said White, who also added that her strength has been earned, not given. “She got significantly better during the pandemic and really worked on herself and her game. She came out of last season a good player, but came into this season as one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
White also described Njike as the glue of the team. Njike didn’t score more than six points in any quarter, but she also scored at least four points in each period, providing the Eagles with a steady presence.
Njike’s teammates began to compliment the steady scoring with scoring bursts of their own. While rallying back within three points to begin the fourth quarter, Skyline’s Grace Marsh hit two 3-pointers in a span of 50 seconds to give the Eagles their first lead of the game with just over six minutes remaining in the contest.
Skyline’s lead climbed to as much as five before Harvey recorded an and-one with five minutes to go in the game and reduced the lead to two, but that’s the closest the Braves would get to reclaiming the lead.
Skyline’s Maddie Bell, who finished with 11 points, responded to Harvey’s play with a corner 3. The shot stretched Skyline’s lead back to five and gave it the separation it needed to hold on the remainder of the game.
White said that Skyline’s ability to hang onto the lead in the clutch was a product of a lot of work at practice.
“We run situations like tonight’s in practice just about every day,” said White. “Whether or not it looks good in practice, it really helps us in games. If you can finish games late, you’re going to get a lot of wins.”
After losing the 14-point lead it had early in the first quarter, Bountiful’s season came to an end in rather disappointing fashion. The future, however, remains very bright for a Braves squad that returns a huge majority of their production next season.
“We have great kids with a lot of talent,” said Bountiful head coach Joel Burton. “They believe in themselves and just continue to get better and better. It is going to be fun to see what they accomplish the next couple of years.”
The nail-biting victory now sets the stage for the Eagles to travel to Farmington and take on the top-seeded Phoenix in the quarterfinal round.
White was adamant that the defense needed to improve, but noted that the matchup should be a great one for observers.
“They have a big as dominant as Tina so it should be fun to watch and see whether they cancel each other out or whether one of them can top the other,” said White. “Coach (Van) Price is a legend and he’s going to have them prepared and ready, so we’re going to do everything we can to be prepared and ready as well.”