SALT LAKE CITY — The Hawks came fearless and ready to fight, and then they majestically took flight.
Indeed, they soared past their powerful, undefeated opponent and flew all the way to a lofty perch in the 5A semifinals.
Alta High, unafraid to go toe-to-toe with top-ranked and previously undefeated Riverton, the defending 5A girls state champion, got gritty, clutch performances from several players to pull out a tense 50-47 victory over the Silverwolves in a quarterfinal thriller Thursday night at Salt Lake Community College.
Rachel McDonald, Lexi Walbeck, Madyson Quigley and Mariah Martin each took turns coming up with critical plays down the stretch as Alta dealt Riverton (22-1) — which was ranked No. 20 in the nation by USA Today — its first (and obviously very devastating) defeat of the season, denying the 'Wolves a shot at a championship repeat.
"We just played as a team," said McDonald, a 6-foot junior center who made 7 of 10 shots on her way to a game-high 18 points, pulled down seven rebounds and blocked a couple of shots. "We just knew that we had a chance if we played together and we played hard that we would crush 'em.
"We had a chance and we knew that if we played with our heart and we played with passion all the way through that we would win.
"We knew that we could do it," McDonald said emphatically. "We know we have a good team and if we play hard and we play with our heart, then we knew that we had a chance. So we came out knowing that we had a chance and (were) not scared of them."
"She was huge tonight," Alta coach Sean Yeager said of McDonald. "She was huge and I'm so proud of her. She really deserves to have a game like this, mostly because she works so hard and is such an amazing athlete that you want to see good things happen to her."
With the win, the high-flying Hawks (16-9) sail into Friday's state tournament semifinals against American Fork at SLCC's Bruin Arena.
"Oh, I'm stoked," McDonald said. "This is my first time I've been in the semis; I'm ready to bang hard, ready to go hard."
Walbeck scored four of her seven points in the final 4:37, while Quigley's free throw with 39 seconds left gave Alta a 48-47 lead it refused to relinquish.
And then there was Martin, a freshman guard who scored all four of her points in the final minute, including a driving basket that tied it at 47 and two gigantic free throws with 8.9 seconds left that gave the Hawks a 50-47 lead that held up when Riverton's Lateesha Richards missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer just before the final buzzer.
"Somehow the rim was smaller than it looked tonight, but I guess I stepped up when I needed to tonight," Martin said humbly. "So I guess that helped our team.
"(On the clutch) free throws, I was just kinda thinking 'money,' like that was all that was going through my head was 'money' because I knew that if I made these free throws that I could help beat them. So I just kinda kept thinking 'These have to go in.' I actually did (have a lot of confidence)."
"Her nickname's 'freshman,' and I won't be able to call her that next year," Yeager said of Martin, "but I'm gonna keep calling her 'freshman' and she stepped up. She definitely wasn't a freshman tonight, but we're going to keep that nickname until the end of the season."
Shelby and Lateesha Richards each scored 13 points for Riverton in a see-saw struggle in which the lead changed hands five times in the final six minutes.
In the final, frantic few seconds, with Alta clinging to a 48-47 lead, Lateesha Richards — whose 3-pointer had given Riverton a 42-41 lead with 5:41 remaining — missed two free throws with 15.3 seconds remaining, and Martin's free throws gave the Hawks a three-point edge with 8.9 ticks to go before time ran out on the Silverwolves' magical season.
"You know what, sometimes it also helps to get a little luck on your side, too," Yeager said. "(Lateesha Richards) missing those free throws at the end, I gotta admit, I thought they were going in and I thought, 'Oh man, it's gonna come down to us trying to get a shot.'
"But you know what? It's nice that it came down to a defensive stop because as most coaches know, we preach defense and it's nice for them to get a few stops at the end, the defensive end, to pull it out."
And how did his team prepare to face powerful pre-tourney favorite Riverton?
"A lot of prayer, a lot of luck and, you know what, I don't have a magic answer for that," Yeager said. "All the credit goes to our girls, just buying into what we're telling them. But they're making the plays.
"There's a lot of times their coach (Ron Ence), he'd mix up their defenses so well I was calling the wrong plays. I was calling man sets against their zone. I was calling our zone against their man. A lot of it's luck. That's what it really boils down to, and a lot of heart. I think coaches get too much credit for wins.2 comments on this story
"It was kind of a toe-to-toe thing, like the last round of a boxing match when there's only 10 seconds left in the round and both fighters start to go toe-to-toe," he said. "We said, 'Maybe it'll come down to that where we're both going at it the last two minutes of the game.' And that's kinda what it came down to and, who knows, 10 more seconds and maybe they would've pulled that out."
But on this night, it was the Hawks' time to soar like an eagle instead.