Less than a year after suffering through one of its worst seasons in their basketball history, Bear River stands one win away from a ‘Worst to First’ turnaround.

With a win at Grantsville on Wednesday night, a 48-46 thriller won at the buzzer on a Brady Jensen put-back basket, the Bears stand at 7-2 in region play. All that’s left to complete the transformation is a win over a tough Judge Memorial squad (6-3 in region, 11-9 overall) who is also battling for a home playoff game.

The two teams square off Friday at 7 p.m. at Memorial Gym in Garland, and neither team is taking the other for granted.

“They are a very dynamic team with guys that can penetrate and shoot outside,” said second year Bear River coach Kasey Winters. “They have some big guys inside that can hurt us.”

“They are as good as anybody when they are playing well,” added first-year Judge Memorial coach Dan Del Porto, whose team beat the Bears 62-54 on Jan. 21 in Salt Lake City. “They are a little different team, with all their injuries, than we played last time. They run a lot of good sets and we have to defend one through five.”

If the Bears win they are Region 11 champions, by virtue of two wins over Morgan. A loss means a drop all the way to third place and a road playoff game in Southern Utah. If Judge Memorial and Morgan both win, the best the Bulldogs can do is second, because they lose the tiebreaker with two losses to the Trojans.

For Bear River, it has been a miraculous rise from a 1-20 season in 2009-10, which occurred just a year after sweeping to the state 3A title. Even more compelling is the Bears are winning without several key components to their team.

Starting point guard Cade Capener went down with a broken bone in his hand in the first game against Judge. The same day, backup point guard Damian Rodriguez was also injured in the JV game. The Bears then lost senior starter AJ Sanchez to a concussion and senior backup forward Kyle Young and junior guard Riley Robbins to injuries.

With all the missing players, the Bears turned to unproven JV guard Taylor Ramsdell and sophomore forward Kyle Zundel for help. The two have provided valuable minutes in the last three games. Senior forward Jacob Rees also added a spark when inserted in the starting lineup. The 6-‘1” Rees scored 14 points in Bear River's 74-66 win over Juan Diego last Friday.

For the Bears to win, they will have to get balanced scoring from their ‘Big 3,’ Wade Miller (6’-3” guard, 9.3 ppg.), Jensen (6’-3 forward, 9 ppg) and Hunter Esplin (6’-4” forward, 7 ppg). Jensen went off for 24 points against the Soaring Eagle, while Miller added 14 and Esplin 10.

Keeping Judge’s leading scorers Shiramizu (13 ppg.) and Jacob Gondrezick (9 ppg.) in check is critical, while also limiting Ben Cook’s second chance efforts in the paint (7.2 rpg.).

“[Daniel} Shiramizu ( who scored 18 points in their last meeting) really hurt us with his ability to penetrate and get to the rim or dish to a teammate,” Winters said.

It hasn’t been a pretty season for Bear River (9-11 overall), but getting hot at the right time has made a difference. This year’s Bear River team is reminiscent of the 2002-03 Morgan boys’ team. They started the year 1-9 before rattling off eight straight wins on their way to the region title. Winters hopes his team can stay focused and “not trip at the finish line.”

Added Del Porto, whose team suffered a crucial home loss to Grantsville last Friday, “It will be really difficult [to win at Bear River]. We could have put ourselves in a better spot by playing better in our league. We have a tough league top to bottom. The difference between one and three [seed] is huge. It is a playoff game, a must win. That is how we are approaching it. It is a state playoff game for us.”

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“The biggest thing is the excitement. It will be senior night and we have a chance to win region. I think their hard work has paid off and has put them in a position to win,” Winters said, adding the Bears have seen these pressure-packed games over the past three weeks. “I think we have been faced with those [must-win games] since we started the second half of region. There is also a pride factor, after losing to Judge last time. After all the injuries we have had, we feel good about where we are at.”

Who knows where this Bear River team will end up? One thing is for sure; the Bears have made believers out of the hometown faithful.

Greg Madson is a sports nut living in Tremonton. He enjoys covering sports for the Tremonton Leader. You can see his work at www.tremontonleader.com or reach him via email at: sales@shopskybox.com