Ken Hansen, for the Deseret Morning News
Manti's Dave Hugentobler fouls Landon Nielson of Richfield as Neilson drives the lane Wednesday.

RICHFIELD — Just two weeks ago, the Richfield boys basketball bandwagon was pretty much empty.

But now? The seats are starting to fill up.

Left for dead by many in their own community after a 2-6 preseason, the Wildcats have since shown that, not only are they not dead, but that they're capable of becoming an outstanding team.

They delivered the latest piece of evidence to support that theory Wednesday evening. Against No. 2 Manti, Richfield built up a 19-point lead early in the fourth quarter before avoiding a huge late collapse en route to a pulsating 72-69 win.

With the victory, the Wildcats improved to an impressive 4-1 in Region 12.

Many of Richfield's preseason losses came against some of the top-ranked teams of 2A and 3A, and several of them were very close. Just two weeks later, the hard knocks the Wildcats endured seem to paying dividends.

"I think that bothered most of us," junior forward JD Michaelson said of the Richfield-is-dead-in-January talk. "It bothered me a lot that everyone was saying we weren't going to be good. Even though we were losing the close ones, they were still (against) good teams.

"Everyone on the team knew we were still a good team, and so we've just showed a lot in region." -->

Forward Dane Whittaker scored 18 points to lead Richfield offensively.

Down the stretch, it was a simply a case of survival for the Wildcats.

After amassing what seemed to be an impregnable 57-38 lead with 6:56 remaining, Manti came flying back.

Manti sophomore guard Russ Hugentobler scored seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter, and several other players — Griffin Aste, Tylan Jackson, Callen Jones and Jens Howe among them — hit clutch shots to help the Templars close the big gap.

However, despite struggling from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, Whittaker come up with four clutch free throws in the final 16 seconds to save Richfield.

The Wildcats had shot just 8 of 17 from the free-throw line in the fourth when Whittaker stepped up to the line with 16.2 seconds remaining, but he dropped two shots to put the Wildcats up 70-66.

After Howe, a reserve forward, drained a three at the other end, Whittaker made two more to preserve the victory.

"We didn't make 'em early, but when it came down to crunch time, Dane did a great job of stepping up and making big shots for us," said coach Rand Janes.

With the defeat, Manti dropped to 2-3 in Region 12. The Templars seem to have the makings of an outstanding team but haven"t been able to put it all together yet. In addition to Wednesday's league loss, Manti fell in overtime to Richfield two weeks ago and to top-ranked South Sevier last week.

Still, if they can build off their fourth-quarter performance Wednesday, Templars could be awfully tough to beat.

"I have great kids,' said Manti coach Mark Hugentobler. "They play with guts and have a lot of heart."

Aste led all scorers with 19 points.