OGDEN — Just six days before the Syracuse Titans played their first-round 5A playoff game, they suffered a humiliating loss.
They traveled to Plain City where their lacksidasical attitude allowed the Fremont Silver Wolves to earn their first — and only — region win of the season at the Titans' expense.
"Yeah, that was a tough one," said Diante Mitchell, who led the Titans to a 53-36 win over Region 2 champion Hunter in the opening round of the 5A state basketball tournament Monday at the Dee Events Center. "Honestly, I think we just went in too confident in that game. Fremont came out and played a heckuva game, shot the ball well, and we didn't play good defense. They shocked us, and I think that helped us realize we've got to be mentally ready or anybody can beat anybody."
Just six days after the crushing defeat, Syracuse jumped out to a quick 17-10 lead in the first quarter against Hunter and really only struggled in the third quarter.
"Their pressure," said Mitchell, who finished with with 21 points, four rebounds and five steals, when asked what the difference was in the third quarter. "They were able to step up their defense. They were able to get some turnovers, some easy layups for them. But once we started settling down in the second half, stopped turning the ball over, played solid defense, we were able to keep our lead and push forward."
The Wolverines pulled within three points at one point, thanks to some great plays by forward Willie Petersen, who finished with seven points, six rebounds and a blocked shot. But it was Hunter's Brandon Davies who picked up the slack when the Syracuse defense focused its attention on guard Noah Togiai.
Davies finished with a team-high 17 points and four rebounds, while the Syracuse defense was able to hold Togiai to six points. Tagiai averages 15 points per game, but he active for the team in other ways — grabbing eight rebounds, earning three assists and finishing with three steals.
"We've been saying since the end of last year, 'We'll go as far as our defense takes us,'" said Titans head coach Justin Nelson. "Tonight we did a great job defensively. We really tried to make it tough on Noah. He's a great player. We did a pretty good job on him, didn't give him very many easy looks and kept him off the free-throw line."
He praised Kade Janes' defense and Daulton Whatcott's energy off the bench. Whatcott finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and two 3-point shots.
More than anything, coach Nelson was pleased with how his team rebounded after losing to Fremont in the last game of region to play tough defense against a No. 1-seeded team.
"To keep a team like that to 36 points," he said, "you're going to give yourself a chance to win when you do that."
He said convincing his teenage players to commit to a defensive mindset isn't always easy.
"Sometimes it's tough," he said, joking about taking sports psychology classes to aid him. "But the proof is in the pudding. All summer long when we're holding teams, and all year long, when we were holding teams to our goals, we were giving ourselves chances to win. The kids see that, and they buy into it. Fortunately for us, we did a good job of that tonight."
He didn't enjoy the loss to Fremont, but he said it gave them a chance to fix problems.
"After what happened at Fremont last week, we sat down and said, 'Guys you can't worry about the other team,'" Nelson said. "We're not going to go into this worry about who we're going to play because it's not about them. ... We just need to play within ourselves, focus on what we do, and trust that good things will happen and let the chips fall."
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