BOUNTIFUL — Bountiful came into the week with the state’s longest winning streak, and it was easy to see why on Tuesday night. The Braves know how to play suffocating defense when it matters most.
Trailing by five late in the third quarter, Bountiful overwhelmed Highland with its full-court pressure defense down the stretch, forcing numerous turnovers en route to a convincing 57-43 victory in the battle of Region 6 unbeatens.
“We just picked up the intensity. Everyone was doing it. Everyone was getting steals and making plays. When everyone is playing well like that we’re pretty good,” said Bountiful junior Sam Merrill, who led all scorers with 28 points.
The victory extended Bountiful’s winning streak to 14 straight.
That streak was definitely in jeopardy midway through the third quarter though, as Highland’s Henry Morris connected on back-to-back 3-pointers to extend the Rams’ lead to 31-26.
Highland had executed its half-court offense nearly flawlessly to that point, and the Braves knew a change was necessary. They tried to disrupt that half-court efficiency with full-court pressure, and it worked to perfection.
Highland struggled to get the ball past midcourt on countless possessions over the final quarter and a half, and Bountiful took advantage by outscoring the Rams 31-12 over the final 10-and-a-half minutes.
After committing just five turnovers in building the 31-26 lead, Highland coughed up possession 10 more times the rest of the way.
“That’s when coach (Mike Maxwell) told us to pick up the defensive intensity, and that’s what we did. We totally took momentum to our side and made some plays,” said Merrill.
Much of the damage was done over the final three minutes as Bountiful knocked down 8 of 8 free throws in the final two minutes as it closed the game on a 12-2 run.
Bountiful’s defense was particularly clutch during two key stretches in the second half. Trailing 31-26, the Braves responded with a 6-0 run by forcing Highland into five straight turnovers.
To its credit, visiting Highland showed great resolve of its own. It regained a 33-32 lead at the end of the third quarter and then scored on its first two possessions of the fourth quarter to grab a 37-35 lead.
That’s when Merrill started to take over.
He tied the game at 37-37 with a pair of free throws, and then converted a stolen inbounds pass by Zach Seljaas into a three-point play to give Bountiful a 40-37 lead with 4:55 remaining. The Utah State commit scored 10 straight points during the decisive stretch.
“Sam just doesn’t want to lose. He gets that look in his eye, like ‘I’ve got to find a way to win this thing.’ Defense, offense, rebounds, assists — it doesn’t matter. When we got down, you could see him get angry,” said Maxwell.
Merrill’s teammates fed off that intensity on both ends of the court.
Seljaas and Jeff Pollard chipped in with 10 points each as Bountiful improved to 5-0 at the midway point of region play. Four of those wins have been by double digits.
“We were both undefeated, so going into the second round this is a statement: Teams are going to have to beat us. We’re not going to lose to people,” said Merrill.
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