CEDAR CTY — Dixie’s coaches put together a pretty straightforward game plan on Saturday as the school looked to end its 45-year state title drought.
The focal point was, of course, containing Juan Diego big man Maliik Fagan-Foster, who Dixie coach Ryan Cuff, compared to a bulldozer. The second was all about wearing down Juan Diego.
It proved to be a pretty good game plan. Dixie took control of Saturday’s 3A championship in the second quarter and never looked back in knocking off Juan Diego 65-57 for the school’s first basketball state championship since 1970.
Just like he’s been doing all season, Tyler Bennett was the catalyst as he attacked the basket all night scoring a game-high 30 points — and dishing off to his teammates when he wasn’t scoring.
It was all part of Cuff’s master plan.
“We knew they’d be tired after the last few games. They played late last night,” said Cuff. “We didn’t want to play half court, we wanted to spread it out more and get a kid like Tyler to the basket.”
In the process it wanted to methodically wear down Juan Diego if possible.
Last year Dixie played the late 3A semifinal and Cuff said his team was noticeably tired the next afternoon in the title game. He believed it might happen to Juan Diego too if Dixie was proactive.
Whether it was tired legs or just an off night, Juan Diego struggled from the perimeter making only 4 of 17 3-pointers — and only 1 of 8 in the first half. Had some of those 3s fallen in the second quarter, the Soaring Eagle would’ve been right in the game.
Instead, it found itself trailing 25-17 at the half and was forced to play catch-up the rest of the game.
Top-ranked Dixie has played with the lead a lot this year both in the preseason and Region 9, and Cuff was confident his team would manage the halftime cushion.
“It started early when we played with a tough tournament in Riverton. We beat a tough team like Kearns for a championship, and we were able to play good teams and do it that way,” he said.
Leading by 25-17 at the half, Dixie maintained the eight-point cushion heading into the fourth quarter as Bennett and Richard Guymon both converted big 3-point plays.
In the fourth, Bennett started to take over early scoring six quick points to stretch the lead to 46-32. It swelled to 56-39 with under three minutes remaining as Dixie continued to beat Juan Diego’s press for easy lay-ups or free throws.
Juan Diego went out fighting, though.
By forcing four quick Dixie turnovers, the Soaring Eagle ripped off a 10-0 run in a span of just 48 seconds to trim the lead to 56-49 with 1:22 remaining. Fagan-Foster scored five of the 10 points, with Eisliey Tan draining a 3-pointer as well.
After the shaky 48 seconds, Dixie started protecting the basketball and then made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute to secure the victory.
“It means a lot, it’s what I’ve been dreaming about for a while,” said Bennett, who was named the Deseret News tournament MVP.
Guymon came up big as well for the Flyers with 15 points. James Eardley proved to be the unheralded hero for Dixie, as he was tasked with defending Fagan-Foster.
“The kid is a bulldozer. We were nervous about it, but James has been solid for us defensively all year and we knew that he could keep him in front of him,” said Cuff. “We weren’t so concerned about his outside shot, but his penetration.”
Fagan-Foster still finished with a team-high 21 points, but he only had four points in the first half when Dixie seized control.
Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org