OGDEN — Bountiful is young.
The last time the Braves won a basketball title in 1997, the team's current starting five — three juniors and two sophomores — were in diapers or hadn't even been born yet. Considering the youngsters entered their 4A first-round matchup against Westlake riding an 18-game winning streak, it wouldn’t be entirely unexpected to see a few nerves exposed.
“Definitely in the tournament there’s going to be some jitters early on,” Bountiful’s Sam Merrill said.
The tightness allowed the Thunder to cause Bountiful a multitude of problems in the first quarter. But it was the wake-up call the Braves needed.
In championship-caliber form, Bountiful (20-3) embarked on a 21-0 run and held Westlake scoreless for seven minutes and 21 seconds in the second quarter to take complete control in its convincing 67-53 win Tuesday at the Dee Events Center.
“They know when to step in. They read their opponent and (are) looking for opportunities — feeling them out — and when they find them they pounce,” Bountiful coach Mike Maxwell said. “You saw in the second quarter, all of sudden they fed on it and the game was over. That’s what they’ve done all year.”
Merrill, a junior who’s committed to play at Utah State and finished with a game-high 22 points, didn’t realize how commanding the Braves’ second-quarter performance really was.
“We had a 21-0 run?” he asked after hearing the numbers in postgame interviews.
“They were hitting shots early, which there’s not a lot you can do, but we were giving them some open shots,” he continued. “We scouted these guys, and we knew what they were going to do, but I think with the jitters we forgot what their strengths were. Once those came back, we picked it up a little more and played a little better.”
In the second quarter, Westlake (8-15) shot 2 for 8, with both makes coming on its final two possessions, and had six turnovers.
“We’ve got a big 7-footer and big guys that can block shots if we do get beat,” Merrill said of the Braves’ instinctive tendencies to jumping passing lanes that equated to seven steals and a 16-2 margin in points off turnovers.
The Thunder actually played particularly well for a fourth seed far below .500. In fact, discounting the second quarter, Westlake outscored the Braves, 48-44.
“Westlake was a formidable team,” Maxwell said. “They had some big guys and some athletic guys.”
In a bizarre start, Westlake led 10-9 after Brayden Holker and Bountiful’s Zach Seljaas accounted for all 19 points scored. Holker, after picking up his third foul with 5:42 in the second, didn’t score again.
“Zach was awesome in that first quarter,” Merrill said of Seljass, who scored 15 points with two 3s.
With 2:03 and 1:33 in the first quarter, Jordan Bleak connected on back-to-back 3s to give Bountiful a 15-10 advantage. The Thunder eventually pulled within two, 17-15, heading into the second after Zavon Jackson buried a pullup trey as time expired.
Jackson, a relatively unknown talent with an ability to score and distribute, tallied 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting with four assists, three rebounds and two steals.
On the opening play in the second quarter, Merrill lolled his defender to sleep and swished a straightaway 3-pointer. The shot forced the Thunder to play close, and ultimately allowed Merrill to snake to the cup.
“I think just early on they were hedging those screens and it was hard to get to the basket. I got one outside shot and that helped,” Merrill explained. “Most teams are going to sag and make me shoot it and I hit that shot and they came out and I was able to get to the rim.”
The quick five points ignited the 21-0 run that featured 13 straight points in less than two-and-a-half minutes.
The Braves will face Roy in the quarterfinals Thursday at 12:40 p.m.
“Roy High. They got that Brekkott (Chapman) and a lot of guys around him that are great shooters,” Maxwell said. “We’ve got to be aware of him and the other guys. They play that zone tough, but we’ll see if we’re up to the task.”
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