They say that there's few things more difficult in sports than repeating as champions.
The Provo Bulldogs and Lone Peak Knights boys basketball teams would like to vouch for the truthfulness of that statement. As talented as both teams are, and even though both began the season among the favorites to win the 4A and 5A basketball titles, the Knights and Bulldogs still had to overcome several obstacles and close calls to accomplish the rare feat.
Playing an entire season with high expectations and a target on your back is not an easy burden to carry for high school athletes. Still, the players and coaches from Lone Peak and Provo handled the pressure well, survived a few tough stretches and played clutch basketball last week at the Dee Events Center in Ogden to bring the two basketball titles back to Utah County.
"For us, it was just a matter of having enough juice left in the tank," Lone Peak coach Quincy Lewis said following Saturday's win over Bingham in the 5A championship game.
The Knights also had to remind themselves a time or two during the season that their preseason national ranking, mystique, reputation and extremely talented roster alone were not going to get them that second-straight state title. Also, with one returning starter out and three new starters in the lineup, they were humbled early by opening the season with a loss at home to Provo. Lewis was challenged from the first day of camp with keeping his players focused and grounded.
"We had to make them believe that the ring is more important than the scholarship, and they did," Lewis said.
Lone Peak's players tried to ignore all the hype surrounding their team, but it was still hard to hide from. Once region play began, Lewis cut off media access to his players and they were instructed not to read or watch media reports on their team until the season was over.
"He told us not to look at the standings and not to read the papers, and that helped us stay a lot more focused and really helped us get this done," Knights senior forward Bracken Funk said.
As powerful as Lone Peak's line-up is, the Knights still had to survive an enormous scare from the Davis Darts in the 5A semifinals. The Darts led for most of the game, forced overtime with a free-throw late, and then had a final shot to win in overtime. Lone Peak prevailed on a tough jumper by Tyler Haws with 2.5 seconds left in the second overtime.
"No team tested us this year as much mentally as they did," Lewis said. "They might be the best team that we've played in the past five years."
Provo began the year with a lot of new faces on the court and a lot of young players on the roster. Even though the Bulldogs were expected to again be one of 4A's top teams, they had only one starter returning and had very few players with varsity experience.
However, coach Craig Drury quickly molded his new talent, and overcame several bouts with injury and illness by returning starter Scott Edwards, to guide Provo through Region 7 without a loss. Carrying most of the scoring load for the Bulldogs were sophomore Kyle Collinsworth and junior Brandon Davies. The fact that Provo had to grow and develop so much during the season, and rely so much on inexperienced players, made winning his eighth and the school's 17th state title extra rewarding for Drury.
"This was a really fun year," Drury said. "This was totally a fun team to work with because coming in we had a couple of young guys that we had to tune and train and make them into our leading scorers."
The Bulldogs' biggest test at the state tournament came in the championship game. Bountiful led by as many as 11 points in the first half and Provo really didn't take charge until the fourth quarter, where the Bulldogs held the Braves scoreless for almost six minutes. Provo's tough defensive stand came with the same five players on the court for the entire period.
"Coach knew what was working for us and he wanted to make sure we stayed on that roll," Edwards said.
Provo held on to win the title game by sinking 7-of-10 free throws down the stretch and then not letting Bountiful get off a possible game-tying 3-point shot in the final seconds.
While the Knights and Bulldogs are still basking in their championship success, fans are already talking about a possible three-peat next season for both squads. It's easy to understand the early predictions. Provo has its top two scorers returning and Tyler Haws, considered by most as the state's top player, will be back for Lone Peak. The Knights also did not lose a junior varsity game this year.Here's a quick look back at how the other Utah County teams fared this year.
PLEASANT GROVE: The Vikings were among the state's top teams all year and their two losses to Lone Peak were their only two defeats to a Utah team, until the playoffs. With a couple of players stricken by the flu, the Vikings were upset in the first round by Clearfield in a game that went down to the final seconds.
SPANISH FORK: The Dons established themselves as a quality team early when they almost beat Pleasant Grove on the road. Their only four region losses came to Pleasant Grove and Lone Peak. In the state tournament, however, they went down to a talented Viewmont team in another close contest.
TIMPANOGOS: The Timberwolves gave every team a good game by playing an exciting brand of basketball. With the No. 4 seed from Region 4, they had a first-round game with the undefeated Davis Darts. The T-Wolves led late in the third period, but eventually the upset bid slipped away as the T-Wolves faded in the final minutes.
AMERICAN FORK: The Cavemen, with a pesky and physical defense, made it hard for all opponents to score. Unfortunately, the Cavemen struggled with their own offensive consistency. With only one league win, the Cavemen finished tied with Lehi in fifth place in Region 4.
LEHI: The Pioneers were probably the best 7-14 team in the state. They beat Provo in the preseason and beat three other playoff teams, and only lost two Region 4 games by double digits.
TIMPVIEW: The Thunderbirds, a team without a lot of superstars, quietly earned the No. 2 seed in Region 7 with a strong league finish. They carried that strong play into the postseason and beat a very good Snow Canyon team in the quarterfinals before losing to Bountiful in the semis.
SPRINGVILLE:The Red Devils, with a third-place finish in Region 7, went to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Even though they were eliminated in the first round, they battled Murray right down to the final seconds in a very close game.
MOUNTAIN VIEW:The Bruins, with true team basketball, won their final three league games to earn a postseason spot for the first time in three years. The key victory in the stretch was a thrilling 50-49 win over Orem. At the tournament the Bruins led Mountain Crest at halftime but were eliminated with a low-scoring second half.
OREM:Battling injuries and other line-up issues, the Tigers finished a game away from reaching the playoffs. Orem originally won a game played Jan. 22 against Mountain View, but later had to forfeit the game when it was discovered an academically ineligible player inadvertently played in the game.
PAYSON:The Lions seemed to overcome a slow start to the season with early upsets of Springville on the road and Timpview at home. But the runner-ups to the 2007 title missed the playoffs by losing five of their final six games.
E-mail: [email protected]