OGDEN — No. 3 seed Orem sure didn't look like a team with a losing record Monday night.
The Tigers, who advanced to the semifinals and finals in the last two years, relied on their postseason success and experience to outlast Wasatch 58-50 and advance to the 4A quarterfinals at Weber State University.
“I always tell the boys we don’t play for second. Two years ago, when (we) missed those two free throws at the end, I still have that second-place trophy in my garage. We’re playing for first and we’re learning and getting better. This was a good test for us,” Orem head coach Golden Holt said.
Despite struggling all year due to some injuries and its youth, Orem got into an early rhythm to take the momentum and gain an edge from the first whistle.
Freshman sensation point guard Puka Nacua, who's just 14 years old, took control early and played with tenacity and poise as he set up him teammates and scored eight first-half points to give his team a commanding 28-15 lead at the break.
“He’s special. Puka Nacua is 14 years old. He is should be in eighth grade — he turns 15 next month. I’ve coached 19 Division I players and a lot of great point guards and players, and at this age, Puka is as good as any of them. He has such a great command of the ball. His command of the ball and his strength is pretty special,” Holt said.
Orem came out in the third and built on its lead to take a 16-point advantage, led by Nacua's four assists in the second half and big man Noah Johnson's 21 points and 10 rebounds, with just two minutes left in the third before heading into the fourth up 40-27.
However, Wasatch, which was playing in its very first playoff game, was far from throwing in the towel.
The Wasps, led by star Eli Ballstaedt, slowly chipped away at their deficit as Ballstaedt caught fire down the stretch to make it an eight-point game with just 3:00 remaining before the home team was able to slow down and put it away.
“We went box-and-one chase on him and really had him off for three quarters. Then we went zone a couple times and he got a couple of baskets, and I think that gave him some confidence. Then we just hung on until the end,” said Holt.
Then, following an and-one from Kyler Anderson and a tremendous assist from Nacua to Jake Stayner with just 1:30 left, the Tigers were back up by double digits before running out the final minute to pick up the win.
Orem will now move on to the 4A quarterfinals, where it is set to take on top-seeded Olympus Wednesday night at the University of Utah.
“You talk about Wasatch and since coming to 4A, that’s their first trip to the playoffs. We’re 9-3 in the last four years in tournament play, so we’ve been here and done it, but so has Olympus. They have some experience and some depth, so they’re right there with Timpview as a favorite. It’ll be a good matchup,” Holt said.
Ryan Love is a full-time student and has been a part-time sportswriter for Deseret News since Oct. 2012.
Follow him on Twitter @RLove7724