ROOSEVELT — Finishing second in Region 10 seemed like an impossible task for the Wasatch Wasps just after the start of the new year.
After all, the Wasps had just finished finished their preseason with an uncharacteristically poor 3-9 record, and things didn't get better early on in league play, as the tradition-rich program dropped its first two league games.
That's all ancient history now.
With a chance to clinch second place in Region 10 Friday night, the Wasps took full advantage.
With the win, Wasatch finishes tied for second with Union in Region 10. The Wasps, however, will represent the league in the 3A tournament as the No. 2 seed by virtue of a season sweep over the Cougars.
“So good," Larson said when asked how this turnaround-completing victory felt. "It’s tough, man to come in here and win. It’s always like this here playing against these guys. It feels like the crowd, the refs — everybody is against you and you have to fight through it.
“It just feels great to finish off with a big win like this.”
Friday's regular-season finale was huge for both sides. Union was having one of its best seasons in years and the Wasps were attempting to prove to themselves that they were a better team than their 8-13 overall record suggested.
Wasatch had defeated Union handily back on Jan. 22 in Heber. That game started the Wasps' season turnaround as they would reel off four straight wins after that. Union was poised for revenge however, as its gym was packed with a boisterous home crowd on senior night.
The Wasps played with tenacity from the opening tipoff, never falling back by more than two points. The Cougars' game plan looked as though it was to out-physical the visitors, throwing their bigger bodies into the Wasatch players. Wasatch would stick to its game of cat-and-mouse, using defense and crisp passing to frustrate the home team.
Playing within one or two points of each other throughout the first quarter, Wasatch made its first statement against the Cougars just before the buzzer with a 6-0 run capped by an and-one opportunity by Wasp guard Jackson Gordon. That put Wasatch up 14-10.
The Wasps didn't let up in the second quarter. They again put up 14 points behind strong play in the paint from sophmore Dow and junior point guard Jeff Murdock. As time ran out in the first half, Murdock grabbed a rebound and pushed it up the floor, finding forward Casey Peterson, who finished off the play with a strong layin. The Wasps ultimately opened up a 28-19 halftime lead.
The third quarter found the Cougars outscoring the visitors, but not by enough to make up the nine-point halftime deficit. Union mostly tried to rough up the Wasps by dropping their shoulders and driving to the bucket, but the tactic did not work as their shots would not fall and the Wasps were strong on the boards.
Midway through the third, Wasatch scored seven unanswered points to leave Union behind 37-24.
The home team would make one last run in the final frame, closing the gap to a two-point Wasatch advantage. After a Union timeout with 2:13 remaining, Wasp senior guard Larson would convert on two free throws to push the lead back to four.
Union answered with a pair of foul shots of its own after Wasatch chewed up two minutes of the clock with a pass-and-don’t-shoot set.
It worked like a Jedi mind trick on the home team. With 39 seconds remaining and down by two, Union's point guard dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds while bringing the ball up court.
Murdock was fouled on the ensuing Wasatch possession and sank a pair of freebies to put the Wasps back up by four. Union would have one last-ditch effort with six seconds on the clock, but had another turnover. This time, an errant pass trying to find an open Cougar for a 3-pointer-flew out of bounds giving the ball back to Wasatch.
Senior Johnson would score for Wasatch on a breakaway layup as time expired in the Wasps' six-point win.
Next, Wasatch will get a home playoff game, which in itself is a victory after the team's 2-9 start to the season and 3-9 record at the end of the preseason. The Wasps will host Region 9's No. 3 seed next Friday.
Kenny Bristow is a contributor to the Deseret News high school coverage for the Wasatch region. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org