TAYLORSVILLE — Riverton coach Ron Ence frantically motioned for a timeout. Gerika Ballard bowed in pain, tears gushing down her face. Her pale complexion explained her grimacing expressions.
Ballard was sick.
“I was throwing up last night. This morning I just took a spoonful of liquid and saltine crackers. (That) is basically what I ate,” she explained. “Every time I sat down I felt like I was going to puke.”
Her mother quickly rushed to the bench after the timeout was granted. Ballard needed gum to combat the seemingly everlasting aftertaste of nausea.
But her tears quickly subsided. The senior wasn’t about to forgo the 5A girls state championship Saturday at Salt Lake Community College.
With the Silverwolves struggling to hold a one-point lead against Layton with 30 seconds remaining, Riverton's Kylee Currie dodged the Lancers' full-court press before spotting Shelby Richards at the top of the key. Richards penetrated, and as defenders closed, dumped a no-look bounce pass to Ballard, who kissed a layup off the glass in traffic. The basket was enough leeway — after the ‘Wolves subsequently forced a turnover — to allow Riverton to capture its first basketball championship in school history, 41-37.
“Just knowing that it was my senior year and it was my last game, I wanted to leave no regrets on the floor,” Ballard, with color returning to her face for the first time, said. “And that’s what I did.”
Ballard tied a game high with 13 points and snagged four rebounds.
Saturday's girls basketball title is Riverton High's first outside of track (3) since the school opened its doors in 1999.
“Our school has only taken a few in track,” Ballard said of Riverton, which has the largest enrollment in the state. “We’ve always dreamed, and wanted to go on and take the next step. I feel this is the next step for our school to go on and do bigger and better things.”
Riverton’s Whitney Saunders, the Deseret News All-Tournament MVP, finished with nine points and 12 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end.
“I’m very proud of the girls because we still had a shot. ... They just couldn’t come up with it,” Layton coach Van Price said. “(Riverton) is so athletic. That’s a very good team — just a step quicker than us.”
Jamie Smith chipped in seven points for Riverton and Richards, although limited offensively, dished out four assists and was the catalyst on defense.
“We did it,” Richards exclaimed. “We stuck together and fought so hard. I knew this was going to be a great season with the potential and talent we had on this team. If we gave everything we’ve got (there was) no doubt in my mind this team could take a state championship.”
For Layton, it was a bittersweet ending to a stellar season that the Lancers refused to let slip away after suffering three straight region losses to close the regular season.
“The end of the season was on a down note. We had a talk about remembering who we are, the hard work,” Price, whose team overcame a 14-point halftime deficit in the quarterfinals and upset No. 1 Bingham in the semifinals, said. “Like Navy SEALs ... there is a motto, 'Don’t ring the bell.' If you ring the bell — you quit. You can have doughnut and milk and you’re kind of happy it’s over, but you quit. I didn’t want us to quit.”
On Saturday, the ‘Wolves (22-3) forced the Lancers (17-8) to open 0 for 6 with five turnovers in the first six minutes, and surged out to a 7-0 lead when Richards found Ballard on a drive-and-dish.
Maddi Smith finally ignited the Layton offense with a wing 3-pointer with 38.7 remaining in the first and eventually pulled her team within four, 20-16, at halftime.
In the third, Layton captured its first lead off two freebies by Smith. It occurred in the midst of a 13-6 run that culminated when Ashley Price rattled home a 3-pointer for a 29-25 advantage.
Smith scored 13 points with nine rebounds and two assists while Price added seven points. Jaden Anderson chipped in 11 points along with eight boards.
“Layton’s hot, and they were coming back,” Ence, who waited 35 years to rightfully boast a state championship trophy after losing in 1977 and ’78 as a player at Olympus, said. “It was like, ‘Come on girls. Let’s draw the line in the sand. We cannot let them get it in the basket,’ and they still got it in there a few times.”
Riverton ended the third quarter on a 6-2 run behind a flurry of offensive rebounds that gave it four or five cracks at the basket. The ‘Wolves finished with an astonishing 17 offensive rebounds.
“We got our share,” Ence said. “So, we’re proud that we were in there fighting.”
After Cassidy Anderson connected on two free throws, Riverton found itself trailing 33-31 to begin the fourth. It turned toward Jamie Smith — who was 1 for 11 and 0 for 4 from distance. As the ball trickled from the corner, Mallory Bostic found Richards, who instinctively delivered a touch pass to Smith.
Smith squared her feet and buried it.
“She wasn’t lighting it up but she was playing much more confident,” Ence, who compared his animated emotions to the Sundance Kid, said. “Earlier in the year she’d miss a shot and stop shooting. I said, ‘Keep shooting. That’s what the good ones do.’ And she made a big 3 there.”
The ‘Wolves never relinquished the lead again.
Deseret News 5A Girls All-Tournament Team
MVP – Whitney Saunders, Riverton
Shelby Richards, Riverton
Ashley Price, Layton
Maddi Smith, Layton
Shelbee Molen, Fremont
Jillian Powell, Bingham