OREM — Just a sophomore, Chelsee Willardson watched from the bench last year as her elder Richfield teammates claimed the 2A state girls basketball championship.
Saturday night it was the junior's time to shine, and she did in the biggest way possible.
Willardson scored a career-high 24 points and grabbed six rebounds to lead Richfield to a thrilling 53-48 victory over Union in the 3A state championship Saturday afternoon at Utah Valley University.
"It's amazing. It's indescribable," said Willardson, whose previous career high was 19 points against Canyon View back in early December. "It was a championship game. I knew I had to go big."
Without Willardson, there's no way Richfield would be celebrating back-to-back titles.
With most of her teammates struggling from the field, Willardson was poised throughout. She scored 18 of her 24 points in the second half, including 10 in the third quarter when Richfield withstood a big push by Union.
After both teams struggled in the first half, Union scored on five straight possessions early in the third quarter to take a 28-24 lead. For a team that trailed Judge in the first round and then Wasatch in the quarterfinals, there was no panic in Richfield — thanks to Willardson.
She scored six of her team's next 10 points as the Wildcats regained the lead at 34-31 after the third quarter, a lead it never relinquished.
"She was big. Chelsee really came out and wanted it. It seemed like when our offense wasn't working Chelsee was the one that was trying to get the ball," said Richfield coach Marc Peterson.
Nothing was really working for either team in the first half, with both shooting a paltry 25 percent. Considering it was Richfield's third straight title game appearance, Peterson was pretty surprised by the slow start.
"I came into it thinking this is our third state championship in the last three years and I thought we would handle ourselves a little better in the first half," said Peterson. "I think we matched Union in being nervous."
Union seemed to be the first team that settled down in the second half, and ironically enough once Richfield fell behind 28-24 it finally started to settle down.
"These girls have all the confidence in the world that if they get down, if other teams make a run, we don't panic," said Peterson.
Richfield was under heavy pressure, though, throughout the fourth quarter as Union kept it close, trimming the deficit to two points on three separate occasions. Each time, the Wildcats responded with a big basket or a big defensive stop to maintain the slight edge.
Late in the fourth quarter, unsung hero Andrea Christensen scored arguably the four most important points of the season to push the lead to 48-41 with 1:44 remaining in the game.
"Sometimes she doesn't get her name mentioned much point-wise, but she's strong for us on defense and rebounds. She's always going to get the rebound for us," said Peterson.
Christiansen added eight points for Richfield while Brooke Bliss chipped in with 11 in a game where both teams shot under 40 percent.
Union was led by Katie Richens' 16 points, but the Cougars ultimately couldn't overcome their 16 turnovers, or Willardson.
"We were confident. We knew Union was a good team, but we knew we wanted it so bad," said Willardson. "It all came down to who wanted it more, and we wanted it more."
3A All-Tournament Team
MVP: Chelsee Willardson, Richfield
Brooke Bliss, Richfield45 comments on this story
Shacari Hinck, Richfield
Katie Richens, Union
Kiz Farrer, Juab
Brianna Nielsen, Union