CEDAR CITY — The goal was to get the ball into Colby Caldwell’s hands.
With the scored tied and less than a minute remaining in his team's 2A semifinal, the Gunnison senior wanted one more shot.
“The basketball gods are shining on us. Things worked out,” Gunnison coach Ben Hill said after Caldwell drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bulldogs a 49-46 victory over Emery on Friday night at Southern Utah University.
“We got him on the left side of the court, right where we need him to create with his right hand and go. And that’s his shot.”
Emery sophomore Dillon Wilstead hit a bucket at the 52-second mark to lock the score at 46-46, and then Hill called timeout with 36 seconds left.
“We figured: They’re going to stay in the 2-3 zone — their bread-and-butter defense — so the only thing they could do is extend out on us,” Hill said. “We just went to our man-to-man spread offense and knew they would have to come out and guard us.”
The Bulldogs ran their offense until they found an opening. Caldwell received the pass, crossed over to create space, and put up the shot.
“I was just trying to read the defense. If I could get to the lane, lay it in. If it was open, hit it,” Caldwell said. “I was just hoping it was going to go in. It looked pretty good.”
Caldwell finished the game with 15 points and four rebounds. He hit 3 of 11 attempts from behind the 3-point line.
“I think finally he realized, he’s the guy and he’s going to have to step up and do it,” Hill said of the guy he called the team’s silent leader. “He’s the guy in there, when we went into that man-to-man set, who waived the ball back over. He said ‘I want it.’ So the guys got him the ball in the corner and let it happen.”
Emery maintained a one-point lead at halftime, and looked poised to grab the narrow victory. The Spartans traded 3-pointers with Gunnison in the final minutes. Both teams shot over 35 percent from the floor for the game.
However, Hill said he had no doubt the Bulldogs would be back to the title match — and for the first time since 1999.
“Our team slogan going into the year was, ‘In it to win it.’ I told these guys, ‘We’re playing for a state championship. No matter what anybody thinks or our history in Gunnison, we’re playing for a championship,’” Hill said. “Through the season, we had our ups and downs, but I’m not surprised we’re here. Our boys are talented, and I knew if we could put all the pieces together we’d be here.”
Braden Harris had a game-high 11 rebounds with eight points and Lafe Christensen had six points and three boards.
“He is the most unselfish kid on our team,” Hill said of Christensen. “He plays defense on the toughest players every game. He does all the dirty work for us, and finally he had good shots fall for him.”
Caldwell added that, along with the team coming together this season, the community support has been crucial to the championship run.
“They’ve been behind our backs the whole way,” he said. “They knew we could do it. We knew we could do it. They’ve been a lot of help for us.”
After hitting the game-winner and then being buried at the bottom of a pile of teammates, Caldwell said only one thing could top the feeling: “Winning a championship would top it.”
The Bulldogs will play in the championship at 4 p.m. Saturday at SUU. Emery will play at 11:45 a.m. in the third-place game. It will be held at Canyon View High.
Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: email@example.com