SALT LAKE CITY — Before the Orem Tigers stepped onto the court for the first round of the 4A boys state tournament on Monday, head coach Golden Holt asked Zach Hunsaker to say a few words.
Prior to this year's tournament, Hunsaker was the only player on the team to ever see state playoff action. The zippy point guard was not on the team last year when the Tigers failed to make it to the tournament.
Instead, he was donning a Woods Cross jersey, playing for the very team the Tigers faced in Monday night's first round.
"I didn't want to lose it and let my old friends get it," he said. "I was pretty nervous because they know me pretty well. But, you just have to get over that."
If Hunsaker felt any extra pressure as a result of the matchup, he didn't show it. The junior, who moved to Orem last year, displayed excellent leadership in the Tigers' 57-47 victory.
He orchestrated the offense and finished with 13 points, four rebounds and nine assists. According to Holt, his playoff experience was beneficial to the Tigers as he advised his teammates in the tunnel prior to warm-ups.
"I told them to take it one possession at a time and stay focused throughout the game," Hunsaker said. "Every possession matters and each basket counts."
Despite the advice, the Tigers experienced a sluggish first quarter. Woods Cross outscored them, 12-8, and appeared to carry some early momentum.
Hunsaker attributed the start to playoff jitters.
"We just needed to settle down," he said. "We were all pretty excited, but once we got settled down and stopped rushing our shots, we just got into the flow of things."
The Tigers reprised their offensive prowess in the second, gaining control and going into halftime with a 22-17 advantage.
Though the halftime lead gave them an edge, the 9-0 Tiger run to start the third quarter was the real decider. Orem came out blazing and the Wildcats were unable to match their intensity. When Woods Cross' Brady Cowley finally ended the run with a 3-pointer, it was too little, too late.
The Tigers utilized their obvious size advantage in the paint and maintained a 10-point lead throughout the contest.
"Woods Cross is scrappy," Holt said. "I like a little adversity because I think it makes us better."
And though the 10-point margin was somewhat narrow, he was pleased with the outcome.
"I think you learn from that first game at state. So to get out with a 10-point win, I'm happy with that," he said.
Four players were in double figures for the Tigers, with Dalton Nixon leading the way. Nixon finished with 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds. Jordan Darger and Hunsaker combined for 26 points, with 13 apiece, and Quinn Peters finished with 11.
Hayden Grant put up a valiant effort in the loss with four 3-pointers and 18 total points. Skyler Farnes earned the double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
The Tigers are chock-full of talent and have seen success against some of the best competition in the state. Though they entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed in Region 8, several games came down to the wire, and the region's tough nature helped to better prepare them, according to Holt.1 comment on this story
"A wise coach once said, 'You win championships with your heart, not your hands or your feet.' So the fact that we've been tested and had adversity, shows what heart this team has because we've won all of the close ones to test us this year," Holt said.
The Tigers hope to see their success continue as they try for a state championship — something Orem hasn't achieved in 56 years.
Though they are the favored lineup, several able teams are clamoring for the crown. The Tigers are set to take on Skyline on in the second round.