SALT LAKE CITY — Judge's boys basketball team isn't going to overwhelm many teams this year with its limited height, but it will scrap on every possession and be very difficult to beat.
The Bulldogs' two losses this preseason, including a season-opening loss at Bingham, have been by a combined four points. Their lone victory was a one-point triumph on a buzzer-beater at Hillcrest earlier this week.
Close games have been the norm for Judge this preseason, and the trend continued Friday night.
In a spirited atmosphere at Highland, the Rams did the little things down the stretch to eke out a 36-34 victory over the feisty Bulldogs.
"It's a good rivalry. Obviously we're not where we need to be, but give them credit. They should've been Bingham. They're scrappy, they play hard," said Highland coach Keith West.
Highland's offense struggled the entire game, shooting 29 percent from the field and 46 percent from the line. A 14-2 edge on the offensive glass, and solid defense, were the only things that kept the Rams in the game.
Despite shooting woes of its own, Judge was in position to steal the road victory. Poor execution in the final three minutes, and two clutch free throws by Highland's Sam Orchard, prevented it.
Leading 34-32 with three minutes remaining, Highland decided to spread the floor and make Judge come out and pressure. First-year Judge coach Dan Del Porto didn't mind shortening the game and dropped his players back to let time tick off the clock.
"We just said, 'Let's just back off. They're behind. Let them come get us,' " said West.
The Bulldogs finally started to pressure the ball once the clock went under a minute, but before they could foul one of Highland's weaker foul shooters West called a timeout with 49 seconds left.
After the timeout, Judge did the one thing Del Porto likely instructed his players not to — they fouled Highland's Orchard. An outstanding shooter, Orchard calmly knocked down both free throws to extend the lead to 36-32 with 37 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs tried to push the ball up for a quick basket, but after 17 seconds of offensive confusion Del Porto was forced to use his final timeout. Daniel Shiramizu cut the lead to 36-34 with 12 seconds remaining, but without a timeout Judge couldn't stop the clock. By the time it finally fouled Lew Evans only four seconds remained.
Judge got what it needed as Evans missed the front end of the one-and-one, but Shiramizu couldn't get his shot off in time at the other end of the court.
"We'll get better. We're going to be a really good team, we're just not yet," said West.
Nate Fakahafua led Highland with 12 points, while Shiramizu led Judge with 17.
Judge led 19-14 at the half after closing the second quarter on a 9-0 run. Highland battled back and tied the score at 27-27 heading into the fourth quarter.