I was a little nervous going into my first state tournament game because we didn't make it to state last year. But I've gotta think that, with our team, we're a family and that's what keeps us together. And we move the ball really well and we know where everybody's gonna be at. —Copper Hills guard Shirsten Wissinger
TAYLORSVILLE — When the Grizzlies finally got things going and kicked their offense into high gear, there was no stopping them.
Throughout the first half of Tuesday's 5A girls state tournament matchup between Copper Hills and Cottonwood, points came along about as often as a snowy day in Hawaii.
But then in the third quarter, Copper Hills' terrific twosome of sophomore guard Shirsten Wissinger and senior forward Savannah Sandberg joined forces to spearhead a game-changing 15-5 run that vaulted the Grizzlies to an eventual 51-38 first-round victory over the Colts at Salt Lake Community College's Bruin Arena.
Sandberg scored seven of her game-high 15 points during that decisive third-quarter surge, and Wissinger had five of her 14 total during that same scoring spree that helped propel Copper Hills (15-7) to its first state tournament win in more than a decade and into Thursday evening's 5A quarterfinals against American Fork.
"I was a little nervous going into my first state tournament game because we didn't make it to state last year," Wissinger said. "But I've gotta think that, with our team, we're a family and that's what keeps us together. And we move the ball really well and we know where everybody's gonna be at."
Sandberg and Wissinger combined for 24 of the Grizzlies' 33 second-half points, as Sandberg scored 13 of her 15 points after halftime and Wissinger had 11 of her 14 in the final two quarters as Copper Hills pulled away from a slim 18-16 lead after a ragged, low-scoring first half.
"I feel like our energy and everything started to click with our team and we finally got into a rhythm like our coach asked us to," Wissinger said of the Grizzlies' second-half surge. "I think we came out on the court after halftime and realized it's just another game and we just needed to play together and make it happen."
Sandberg, a slender 5-foot-10 forward, hit 5 of 6 free throws and also scored on a short-range shot to fuel Copper Hills' decisive third-quarter spurt. She drove hard to the basket for three more fourth-quarter buckets that boosted the Grizzlies' lead to as many as 19 points down the stretch.
"I think as a team we just had a slow start," Sandberg said. "We knew what we had to do but jitters were setting in for everyone. I think we just started getting into the flow and realized it's just a game and we didn't really worry too much about who was here or what. ... The third quarter everything we started doing tough, and we were finishing.
"I just felt like I had to step up more," she said of her strong second-half showing. "I was trying to not worry too much about offense because I think at the beginning of the game that's what I was doing. I tried to just let defense happen and get steals and start getting rebounds, and we started playing better defensively as a team. I think that was the key for me. I just knew what I had to do and I had to step up and do it for my team and do my part."
Sandberg was so happy to get the first state tournament win of her high school career, and she realizes the Grizzlies' postseason ride isn't over yet.
"This whole season has been amazing," she said. "We've accomplished so much and it's been the best senior year I could've ever asked for. Today with this team, I've done so much compared to past seasons at Copper Hills. I'm so glad I'm part of this team and I'm so excited about what we're going to do in the tournament."
For Cottonwood (13-8), though, the ride ended despite a strong performance from senior guard Sierra West, who scored nine of her team-leading 13 points on a trio of 3-pointers in the first half. Nicole Christensen added eight points for the Colts.
Meanwhile, Copper Hills coach Ben Morley was mighty pleased to see his squad notch a long-awaited tournament win for the school's program.
"I couldn't be more proud of the team," he said. "I'm not exactly sure how long it's been, but it's been at least 12, 13 years since Copper Hills has won a state tournament game. This was the goal of this team for a very long time since the beginning of the season, just to get to the tournament and win a game, and I just couldn't be happier for the girls, for the community, because they've waited a long time for it.
"And they're not satisfied, that's the thing. We've got American Fork next and we played them in the preseason and lost in overtime at their place, so I expect a competitive game. They're very well-coached. They've got some good athletes and some girls that can shoot.
"... The thing about our girls is no matter had bad we play at times, they don't quit. We fight, fight, fight, and hopefully we take that attitude into the game on Thursday," Morley said.
The Grizzlies' coach attributed Tuesday's sluggish start to a severe case of state tournament jitters by both teams.
"I think both teams in the first half played with a lot of nerves.," Morley said. "Speaking for us at Copper Hills, we're not as a program, I guess, used to being in the state tournament a lot. So a lot of these girls are playing for the first time on this type of a stage, and it showed out there.
"We had nine turnovers the first half. The thing that we've been really good at throughout the year is we're a low-turnover team, so that really hurt us.
"But in the second half, we stuck to our keys that we had set out in the beginning and we attacked the basket a lot better," he said. "I think in the first half we were content to just kinda throw the ball around and take open shots from the outside. And it's easy when those shots aren't falling to get frustrated. In the second half, we made a much more concerted effort to attack the basket. We got to the free-throw line a few times, got some steals, and got out and ran on 'em a little bit, picked up some offensive rebounds.
"It's a simple game, you know. You get some rebounds and it kinda comes down to turnovers and rebounds. And we did a better job at both of those things in the second half and extended our lead."
Coach Morley credited Sandberg and Wissinger for being difference-makers in Tuesday's victory.
"One of Shirsten's greatest strengths is she's a great offensive rebounder," he said. "She's always around the basket and she has a great pivot foot, so she's able to really grab boards despite the fact that she's not the tallest girl (5 foot 7). She can use her pivot foot in the paint and get open shots.
"And then Savannah, her attacking the basket in the second half and finishing and getting fouled, that was kind of a turning point with those two.
"Cottonwood plays at a much slower pace than we do. They're very good in their zone defense and they want to slow you down and reduce your possessions. And coach (Janae) Hirschi does a really good job of having her girls ready to play that style," Morley said. "And we don't have a lot of size, so we can't slow down — we have to play fast. So once we started to do that in the second half, that's when we took control of the game."