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Kenny Bristow
Wasatch Head Basketball Coach Lonnie Magnusson has done a masterful job at keeping his team focused after a rough start to the season. He has led his Wasps to a second-round playoff game next Thursday at Weber State.

HEBER CITY — The Wasatch boys basketball team took advantage of home-court advantage in the first round of the 3A state tournament. The second-seeded team out of Region 10 defeated visiting Desert Hills of Region 9, 52-46, in a physical showdown Friday evening.

“That was a great game,” Wasatch coach Lonnie Magnusson said. “(Desert Hills) is a very good team and we knew we were going to be in for a tough battle.”

The game was close throughout, and the Wasps only stretched their final lead to six points when Desert Hills was forced to foul in the last minute of the game. Friday's play was physical right from the start, and it prevented either team from finding a consistent scoring rhythm.

“Early on, we didn’t come hard and aggressive, and the tone was set fairly early that it was going to be physical game,” Magnusson said. “Luckily we adjusted. We stepped up. And it was hard, tough defense on both sides.”

After Wasatch led off the game with three quick points, the Thunder responded with a 6-0 run and then an 11-2 run that included three 3-pointers to grab a 17-7 first-quarter lead. The Wasps had their hands out deflecting passes, but the Thunder was effective with its inside-out game.

Wasatch settled down against Desert Hills’ full-court press and caught up to tie the score at 27-all by halftime. Throughout the third quarter, however, shooting on both ends of the court turned to ice as the teams combined to score just 13 points in the eight-minute span.

“I said ‘Hey, we’ve just got to loosen up and play ball,’” Magnusson said of how he responded to his team’s stagnant offense. “Like we’ve known all year, our offense comes off our defense. When we play good, hard defense, we do much better offensively. We just stepped up the defensive intensity.”

The home team took the lead for good when junior guard Jeff Murdock hit a 3 from the wing to put Wasatch up 43-41 with 2:37 left in the game. From that point on, the Wasps spread out and forced Desert Hills to foul. Wasatch hit 9 of 10 free throws in the final minute to keep the Thunder at bay.

Murdock finished the game with a team-best 17 points and senior forward Chris Johnson added 10 points. On the other hand, Desert Hills senior Ty Rutledge played a stellar game with 19 points and two 3-pointers.

The Wasatch coach attributed much of his team’s momentum late in the game to the raucous environment the Wasatch crowd and pep band created.

“Getting the home court is huge,” he said, noting that Wasatch and Union finished region play in a tie for second place while Desert Hills and Cedar also ended in a tie for second place in Region 9. In such situations, a tie breaker is used to seed the teams for tournament play, with the second-seeded teams hosting the first-round game and the third-seeded teams traveling to play a No. 2 seed.

“It came right down to the last game of region play for who got to go down South and who came up here; it did in (the Desert Hills) region too,” Magnusson added. “That’s huge to get that home-court advantage.”

The Wasps advance to play the winner of the first-round matchup between Ogden at Spanish Fork. The two will meet at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Thursday in the 12:50 p.m. time slot.

“Our record isn’t indicative of where or how far we’ve come,” Magnusson said. “We lost a lot of close games early against very good teams. We’ve been progressing; I think some teams are overlooking us a bit, so hopefully we can make a run.”

Sarah Thomas is a graduate of the University of Utah and has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008. EMAIL: sthomas@desnews.com