OGDEN — After Highland's 55-34 blowout of Payson, Matt Barker shuffled out of the locker room, just another player in the line of Rams heading home after advancing to the 4A semifinals.
Highland coach Keith West walked by just before Barker reached the exit tunnel and gave him a knowing smile and a squeeze on the shoulder.
No words were exchanged, but it didn't matter — West's look confirmed what he told reporters after the game.
"We've had a few other games this season where Matt has had to come in and give us a lift," West said. "He was key in our win. If I had a game ball, it would go to him for his effort and what he did for us today."
With starter Nate Fakahafua forced to the bench with early foul trouble, Barker came in and scored the first seven points of the second quarter — on a layup, a 3-pointer and two free throws. Those were Barker's only points of the game, but when he was done, Highland boasted an 18-9 advantage. The game was never close again.
"I just came in knowing that I needed to be ready in case Nate got in foul trouble or got hurt or something," Barker said. "I just tried to play hard and do my job, which is to make hustle plays and play good defense."
Neither team lit the world on fire early on, with Highland holding a meager 3-2 lead more than halfway through the first quarter. Lew Evans took care of that, hitting two-straight 3-pointers and adding another bucket to jump-start the Rams' offense.
Payson, meanwhile, couldn't find any kind of rhythm on offense. When the Rams heated up after a slow start, the Lions kept chucking up bricks — a trend that lasted the entire game. As a team, Payson shot only 21.6 percent from the field.
"Payson is a really good team, and we had to put forth a huge amount of effort to guard them," West said. "To hold someone to that low of a shooting percentage means we did our job."
B.J. Ford entered the game averaging nearly 18 points per game, but came way with only nine against Highland. He went 2-for-7 from the field and 5-for-9 from the line, and failed to hit a 3-pointer — his specialty — for only the fifth time in a game all season. Much of that had to do with the stifling defense of Highland's Steven Divver, who hounded Ford the entire game.
"Steven lives for that stuff," West said. "When we told him what his job was going to be, he got so excited. He loves to shut down good shooters like that. And people forget about him on offense, but he can hit a shot when they give him room."
Between chasing Ford around screens all game long and setting screens for his teammates, Divver somehow found the energy to sink two picture-perfect threes late in the game to extend Highland's lead.
Evans led Highland with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Fakahafua and Sam Orchard scored 11 points each. Orchard added five assists but made only 1-of-5 from the charity stripe down the stretch. He missed the front end of two one-and-ones while the Rams were trying to protect their sizable lead.4 comments on this story
Braden Wright had seven points and a team-high nine rebounds for the Lions, though he made only 2-of-14 shots. Clint Bateman hit two 3-pointers and finished with eight points in the loss.
Highland will play Lehi on Friday in the 4A semifinals. The game will begin at 7:15 p.m. at Weber State University's Dee Events Center.
"Lehi's a great team — they run and defend really well, and have five guys who can really shoot the ball," West said. "We watched their game against Sky View and were very impressed. They'll be a tough matchup for us."