SALT LAKE CITY — In the face of chaos Tuesday, Kearns’ boys basketball team showed unrelenting poise.
Trailing Highland by 15 at the half and 10 after the third quarter, the Cougars upped the defensive intensity down the stretch to rally for the 54-52 road victory in the critical Region 6 showdown.
It was exactly the poised performance coach Dan Cosby groomed his players for.
After Kearns nearly blew a 15-point lead of its own last Friday against Woods Cross, Cosby decided to run his players through a pair of chaotic practices. At times, his starters went up against eight defenders in zone defense, and at other times they went up against 10 defenders in man-to-man defense — all to simulate disruption.
At one point, he kicked sophomore guard Tayler Marteliz out of the gym for turning it over too many times.
“I told him, 'You have to protect the ball like it means something,'” said Cosby.
The strategy worked to perfection all night as Kearns remained calm despite Highland knocking down 10 3-pointers — seven alone from Jake Connor, who led all scorers with 27 points.
Conner buried six treys in the first half to pace Highland to the commanding 35-20 halftime lead. His seventh and last 3-pointer came with 4:01 remaining in the game, a bucket that halted a Kearns 8-0 run and at the time seemed to stop the bleeding for the unsettled Rams.
With his team now trailing 50-43, Cosby called a timeout.
“I said, ‘Guys, right now is clutch. If you want it, go get it. That’s all I said.’ And they showed me,” said Cosby.
He couldn’t have asked for a better response.
Kearns’ Sunday Owda scored on three straight possessions over a span of 26 seconds to whittle Highland’s lead to 50-49. Owda’s steal and layup with 2:36 remaining was one of seven fourth-quarter turnovers for Highland — all the result of Kearns’ frantic full- and half-court pressure defense.
Brandon Warr briefly extended Highland’s lead to 52-49 with a pair of free throws at the 2:08 mark, but Darion Brown responded with a huge baseline 3-pointer to level the score at 52-52 with 1:29 remaining.
Owda again forced Highland into a turnover on its ensuing possession, and with all the momentum on its side Kearns was content to play for the last shot.
Bushmen Ebet was fouled attacking the basket with 6.1 seconds left, and just like his teammates all game, the junior stayed calm and buried both free throws for the 54-52 lead.
“I just emptied my mind and tried to get the win. I just do the same routine every time I shoot my free throws,” said Ebet, who finished with 12 points.
Highland’s desperation 30-footer at the buzzer hit the front of the rim, which helped Kearns move into a second-place tie in Region 6 with both Highland and Kearns.
“Every game is a playoff game for us. That’s how we’re looking at it,” said Cosby.