A month later, the defensive gamble paid off for the Cedar Reds.
With region play winding down and Cedar nearing full strength after key players were shut down at different times early in the season because of COVID-19, Cedar coach Mark Esplin could sense his team’s perimeter defense wasn’t quite good enough.
The elite guards in Region 9 were getting into the lane too easily against Cedar’s defense, and to ultimately win a state title — which Esplin knew he had the talent to do — he needed to make a change. Four weeks ago, Cedar decided to start switching on screens along the perimeter.
“We weren’t the quickest, but by switching we were able to stop kids from turning the corner,” said Esplin.
That subtle change paid dividends down the stretch, and then in all three playoff wins at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield this week which Cedar capped in Wednesday’s 4A state championship with a 64-59 victory over region foe Desert Hills.
It was Cedar’s first state championship since 1995. Cedar’s coach during back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 was Steve Hodson, who passed away from cancer in 2008.
Hodson is a coaching legend in Southern Utah, and Esplin even played for him during Hodson’s first year coaching Cedar in 1984. Esplin said it was an honor to be the next Cedar coach to win a state title.
Cedar led for almost the entire game, and spent most of the fourth quarter at the free throw line as Desert Hills’ had no choice but to start fouling after the Reds extended the lead to 50-39 with 4:4 left in the game.
Cedar made 16 of 22 free throws in the fourth quarter, and finished the game 19 of 26 from the line.
Desert Hills led 5-0 early, but Cedar went on an 11-0 to close the quarter and the Thunder were forced to play catch up the rest of the game. On a night where open looks around the perimeter were tough to come by, it made climbing back into the game difficult.
“We felt like we couldn’t let them continue to go to the basket and get kick outs,” said Esplin.
With Cedar leading 23-17 at the half, it stretched the lead to 32-22 midway through the third quarter on back-to-back 3-pointers from Jorge Santana Reyes.
He finished with a game-high 19 points on 4 of 10 shooting from 3-point range.
“It’s fun to play basketball, that’s why I do it. I don’t do it for anything else. I just have fun out here,” said Santana.
After Cedar extended the lead to 11 in the fourth, Santana said nobody took the lead for granted. Cedar’s quarterfinal win over Crimson Cliffs on Monday was a great reminder that anything can happen after it rallied from a 16-point deficit to stun the Mustangs.
The closest Desert Hills got after that 11-point deficit was 61-57 on a three-point play from Mason Landeck with 15 seconds remaining.
Treyton Tebbs responded with a pair of free throws, effectively putting the game out of reach for Desert Hills.
Tebbs finished with 12 points for the Reds. Landdeck led Desert Hills with 19 points despite not playing in the first half, with Peyton Holmes adding 17.
Unfortunately for Desert Hills, nobody could get hot from 3-point range as it finished 6 of 30 behind the arc.
Deseret News 4A All-Tournament Team
MVP — Jorge Santana Reyes, Cedar City
Dallin Grant, Cedar City
Treyton Tebbs, Cedar City
Mason Landdeck, Desert Hills
Malick Diallo, Juan Diego
Kaden Cox, Ridgeline