SALT LAKE CITY — Bountiful flirted with the dreaded deja vu. This particular group of Braves had experienced its share of agony with consecutive losses in the state semifinals. With two seconds remaining in the 4A state championship game Saturday, they were threatened with the same heartbreaking fate.
Bountiful waited helplessly with a one-point lead as Orem’s Dalton Nixon stepped to the free-throw line. The Braves watched as the BYU commit prepared for an opportunity to win the state championship. They sighed after the first attempt flung from the front iron and jumped in celebration as the second crawled innocently off the rim to reward Bountiful with its first state championship since 1997 with a 44-43 win.
“I love them like kids,” Braves coach Mike Maxwell said. “I’ve been with them forever, it seems like. They start when they’re little kids coming to basketball camp. You grow up with them. I’m just happy as can be for the future of those kids. To finish it like this — they deserve it.”
The championship victory capped a 26-1 season for Bountiful, with its lone loss occurring out of state. Despite competitive disadvantages because of a smaller public enrollment, Maxwell believes the team deserves national recognition for its accomplishments.
“We went to that national tournament and we saw the best teams,” he said. “We know who they are and we can compete. Utah deserves it. There are some great basketball players. It’s a great state for basketball.”
The Braves, once again, were led by Sam Merrill, who was named the Deseret News 4A All-Tournament MVP after finishing with 23 points and four assists.
“It’s kind of relieving to finally finish that off,” he said. “It feels really good to be able to celebrate with all these people who have helped us along the way.”
Merrill was joined on the Deseret News 4A All-Tournament Team by teammates Zac Seljaas and Jordan Bleak. Orem’s Nixon (13 points, six rebounds) and Quinn Peters (10 points, six rebounds, five assists and five steals) were also honored, along with Olympus’ Alec Monson.
“Coming from Sam that means a lot,” Bleak said after hearing that Merrill believed Bleak deserved the MVP honors. “I’ve played with him my whole life and I’ve always looked up to him. I’ve tried to be as good as he was — you always want to be the Sam of the school. That means a lot to know that he respects me because I respect him.”
Orem mirrored virtually every statistical category while holding the Braves well below their typical offensive production. Ultimately, inefficiencies at the free-throw line (3 of 11) proved too much.
“The game went exactly how we thought,” said Orem coach Golden Holt, who credited Merrill’s performance. “The tempo, the style, the zone defense — everything was perfect. I thought everything went perfect except the last two shots.”
Bountiful traveled into the final eight minutes with a four-point cushion after Merrill bucketed a 3-pointer as time expired in the third quarter. However, Cooper Holt immediately returned the favor early in the fourth to pull within one.
Shortly thereafter, Jeff Pollard gathered one of his 14 rebounds to set up a Bleak layup before Peters repeated the act for an easy two on the opposite end to keep the deficit resting at one point.
Moments later the chaotic pace returned when Peters flipped the score with a steal off an inbounds pass, but Merrill responded immediately with a finish at the rim for a 44-43 lead.
Bountiful appeared primed to cut the nets after Bleak pickpocked Peters with 12.4 seconds remaining. However, Nixon forced a five-second violation by obstructing the vision of Bountiful’s Trevor Lloyd on the ensuing inbounds play.
“I was counting in my head,” Lloyd said when asked if the whistle was premature. “I turned around to call timeout and it was so loud — I don’t think he heard me. That’s on me. I’ve got to make myself heard in that situation, but luckily it worked out in our favor.”
Nixon provided another crucial effort — an offensive rebound — on the last possession before ultimately missing the free throws.
Deseret News 4A All-Tournament Team
MVP: Sam Merrill, Bountiful
Jordan Bleak, Bountiful
Zac Seljaas, Bountiful
Quinn Peters, Orem
Dalton Nixon, Orem
Alec Monson, Olympus
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