OGDEN — Back in early January, when the Wasatch High boys basketball team was limping along with an uncharacteristic 3-11 record, nobody associated with the Wasps’ tradition-rich program panicked.
After all, those games in December don’t matter nearly as much as the ones you get to play in February. And a school like Wasatch, with six boys state basketball championships to its credit, certainly knows that, so the Wasps weren’t about to push the panic button back then.
And certainly not now, either.
So, speaking of meaningful games in February, Wasatch won another one Thursday, using a key third-quarter scoring spurt that paved the way for a 46-36 victory over Spanish Fork in the quarterfinals of the 3A state tournament at the Dee Events Center.
With the win, the Wasps’ eighth in their last 10 games, they advance into Friday's 3A semifinals against powerful Morgan. Tipoff for that matchup is 9:10 p.m. at the DEC.
And there you’ll find Wasatch, a team without superstars, but one whose determination and desire defy its 11-13 season record.
“There is a great tradition there, there is, and there’s a lot of expectations,” Wasatch coach Lonnie Magnusson said of his program. “But for most of (his players), they watch those previous teams coming up through and they want to be a part of that. That’s every kid’s dream is to be part of that tradition.
“There were kids that wanted to be that go-to guy but realized early on that maybe it just wasn’t their job. So they’re all filling their roles now. Different guys step up on a different night, and it’s been great. The kids are doing great.
“I knew we could be OK,” Magnusson said of his team’s slow start this season. “Did we have that one guy that at times you need, that go-to guy? No. But as we started to gel after Christmas, you could kind of see yeah, we might have a chance to do this. And the kids started to believe in themselves, and that’s a big part of it. If the kids believe in themselves, that’s huge.”
Senior forward Chris Johnson played a big role in Thursday’s low-scoring, grind-it-out victory, as he had a game-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. He also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds to help the Wasps beat the Dons on the boards by a decisive 39-27 margin.
“This is about the most aggressive I’ve seen him play all year,” coach Magnusson said of Johnson. “He came out aggressive right from the get-go and set the tone; he set the tone for the game and just did a great job tonight.”
Johnson pointed at the Wasps’ desire as the key to their late-season surge.
“I think that these past couple games, we’ve played so much better just because we’ve focused so much on the desire,” he said. “We’ve really had a huge desire.
“We’re planning on taking state — that’s our goal. We remember last year when we lost in the first round of the playoffs, so we kind of have that chip on our shoulder and definitely have big expectations.
“It just feels really good to have made the improvement that we have,” Johnson said. “I think that there might’ve been some people who doubted us, but as a team we’ve really tried to stay positive. And for me personally, I never doubted us.”
Junior forward Ben Pelo had six points and nine rebounds for Wasatch, and junior guard Jeff Murdock added six points, four boards and four assists.
Cameron Money had 16 points and five rebounds for Spanish Fork (18-4), the Region 12 champ that saw its 11-game winning streak snapped. Taylor Parker contributed eight points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots for the Dons, who face Cedar in a consolation clash today at 5:30 p.m.
The two teams played on even terms throughout the first two quarters Thursday, with Spanish Fork holding a 13-9 lead at the first stop and the scoreboard showing a 21-all standoff at halftime.
But in the third period, with the score still deadlocked at 28, Wasatch went on a critical 8-0 run to seize control.
Jackson Gordon started the decisive spurt with a floater in the lane, and then Johnson hit a pair of free throws to make it 32-28. Murdock’s jumper increased the margin to six, and Pelo scored on a putback to push the Wasps ahead by eight, 36-28, entering the final frame.
“That run was huge for us,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just been defense. Usually our defense has been what led to good offense, so we’ve just focused on that.”
The Dons never got closer than six points after that, as Johnson had an old-fashioned three-point play and then scored again inside, and Jake Larson scored on a fast-break layup, followed soon thereafter by his pair of free throws with 32 seconds remaining for the final 10-point margin.
It was the Wasps’ defense that made the difference in their third-quarter spurt that turned the tide in their favor.
“I think, for one, we were able to get some defensive stops,” Magnusson said. “The defense clamped down; it was a low-scoring game to begin with, and the defense was pretty tough on both sides. And we got some stops, got some inside baskets, which were were hoping to do.
“We had a mismatch, we felt, at one or two places where we could hopefully take advantage of. And finally, that little spurt, that was huge. That was the game, that little run where we got (a) 6-8 point lead and we were able to hang on.
“That’s what we talked about in the locker room — 'it’s gonna be a grind; we’ve got to grind it out,'” said Magnusson. “I kept reminding them, ‘Just keep grinding, guys, keep grinding, playing tough defense and rebounding.’ And that’s huge for us to be able to do that, to play good defense and rebound.
“This year it’s been mostly a grind kind of thing, just grind it out, and the kids have done a great job. That’s what we do. In the past, I’ve been more of a run-and-gun kind of thing, but this style suits these guys, and you do what suits your guys.
“They’ve got some great shooters,” Magnusson said of Spanish Fork, “and overall I thought we did a very nice job. We had a couple lapses here and there, and that happens in a game. But for the most part they did a great job.
“And we’re gonna have to do it again tomorrow. Morgan loves to put big numbers up on the board. ... We’ll be challenged. But at this point in the year, that’s the way it is. There’s good teams and usually scoring drops significantly during the playoffs because you’ve got good defensive teams. It’ll be a grind — we hope.”
Coach Magnusson realizes that, after his team’s auspicious 3-11 start, whatever the Wasps accomplish from here on out is pure gravy for his ballclub.
“We’re playing with house money now,” he said with a big smile. “We played a very tough schedule. We lost six games by two points or less or in overtime. We were trying to find our identity early on, and I think we’ve kind of gotten there.
“It was a rough start for us, a little frustrating, but we could see there was potential. That’s why you play a tough schedule. With all the state championships I’ve been in, we’ve never had an undefeated season. That’s what my philosophy is — we want to be peaking in February, not December.”
Well, it looks like the Wasps’ coach got what he wanted.
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