RICHFIELD — As the red-faced girls prepared to play the final quarter of the 1A state championship game, the St. Joseph Jayhawks huddled around their coach and tried to create some emotional fire.
Dealing with the relentless pressure of the Piute defense was as mentally draining as it was physically exhausting.
But this was a moment they'd been working for all season, and they were not about to let tired minds — or legs — keep them from a 1A title and a perfect 22-0 season.
"We were talking definitely before the fourth quarter, clapping our hands, trying to give it everything we've got," said senior guard Katie Panushka, whose team rose up to claim its second consecutive 1A state championship with a 39-29 win over third-ranked Piute on Saturday inside the Sevier Valley Center. "It feels awesome. It feels perfect."
Panushka proved herself to be a leader in every way during the tournament, earning 1A Tournament MVP honors for her play. She led her team Saturday with 18 points, and left the game with 30 seconds remaining to a standing ovation.
"It's not just what kind of player Katie is, what a wonderful person," said Jayhawks head coach Joe Cravens. "She's maybe the best leader I've had at any level, and doing it in a very subtle, charming way. She's not up in your face; she leads by example. She's an all-around athlete, student, just a kid that anyone would want to have as a daughter."
Cravens praised his team for dealing with the twists and turns of a physical, fast-paced game.
"Yeah I was nervous," he said, "because they can put the type of pressure on you that you saw. You can't guard them when they're shooting layups at the other end off of your turnovers. We finally had to spread the floor and try to take care of it."
He said the team's toughness again paid off in the title game.
"It's kind of like it's been the last couple of weeks," he said. "We made big plays when we had to. We did a good job of guarding them. I thought the girls did a nice job of executing our game plan."
The Jayhawks led most of the way, but the game seemed constantly on the verge of turning in the T-birds' favor. That was, in part, because of the play of sophomore guard Shaylee Gleave, who was responsible for a lot of the Jayhawk turnovers.
"I was really nervous," said St. Joseph guard Mady White, who finished with 11 points. "They had really tight pressure, especially Shaylee Gleave, who was everywhere. No matter when or where you caught it, she was right next to you."
Piute head coach Wade Westwood said applying pressure was the game plan, and his team did it well. They just had trouble scoring in the second half, even though they often got more than one shot.
"We were trying to double-team Panushka, to make her cough it back and then trying to contain the big girl," Westwood said. "I thought our defense was working. We just could not buy a basket. We were missing layups, shots, and we usually hit some 3s. ... It was like there was a lid on the basket." The Jayhawk defense had something to do with those misses as both teams played tough, physical basketball.
Cravens said the Jayhawks didn't see anything they weren't expecting in the championship match.
"They're a pressure team, and they're tough," he said. "But they're a typical pressure team in that once you get by that initial wave of pressure, if you can hold onto it, you're going to get a good shot. And that doesn't change at any level."
When Panushka came out of the game with St. Joseph leading by 10 points, she embraced her coaches and teammates. But the first person she hunted down after the buzzer was the player who'd taken her place on the court — Shannon "Magic" Trout.
"She hasn't gotten a lot of time here in these close games," Cravens said. "She's the only other senior, and I wanted to get her in the game and honor her for being a senior."
Panushka said it was one of many moments she'll treasure.
"I was so happy Shannon got the time to play," said Panushka, who may play at Westminster. "She's been working so hard. ... I would go out for her anytime."
Panushka said finishing with a perfect record was icing on the cake.
"Both were amazing experiences," she said referring to last year's title, the first in school history. "I don't have words to describe either. I'm so happy this was my last game with St. Joe's, and that it ended this way. It was wonderful."