I think it’s somewhat unexpected for our team. We knew going into the season that we’d be good, but I think we kind of feel as a team and a program that we’ve overachieved at this point. —Copper Hills head coach Ben Morley
If any 5A basketball team knows how to play with pressure, it’s top-ranked Layton.
Not only have the Lancers navigated the season without a loss, but they’ve also played one of the toughest preseason schedules. They’ve earned that No. 1 ranking and unblemished record with a strategy so simple, it’s a sports cliché.
“We’re taking it one game at a time, and that’s what we’ve done all year,” said Layton head coach Van Price. “You can’t look ahead. You just have to stay focused on the game at hand.”
It’s a philosophy that’s served the Lancers well, although they’re not the only team to play with the accumulating pressure of a perfect record. The Lancers are led by Hailey Bassett, who averages 19 points per game, and is also a force on the boards with 7.4 per game. They have solid defenders like Livia Borges and Kelsey Foster.
Second-ranked Copper Hills is also undefeated this season, and while the Lancers’ preseason schedule was tougher, the Grizzlies’ region schedule was brutal. The pressure Copper Hills has faced has been a little different than that shouldered by Layton.
“I think it’s somewhat unexpected for our team,” said Copper Hills head coach Ben Morley. “We knew going into the season that we’d be good, but I think we kind of feel as a team and a program that we’ve overachieved at this point.”
He said that the team’s goal was never to finish the season without a loss.
“I think people knew we were a good team, but I don’t think a lot of people expected us to be where we’re at,” he said. “I think if we came into the season as the number one team, I think we’d feel more pressure. This team, they just keep finding ways to win. Our goal was always to win the region title. If we wound up going 12-0 or 6-6, that didn’t matter. Along the way (to the goal), we just kept winning.”
If both teams win their first two tournament games, there would be a battle of unbeatens in Friday’s semifinal. But in order to get into that situation (which neither coach is concerned about yet), the teams have to face tough first-round opponents.
Copper Hills will play Davis in the first round while Layton takes on Taylorsville in Tuesday’s opening round of playoff games at Salt Lake Community College.
The Grizzlies are led by senior Shirsten Wissinger, who is one of the top offensive players in the state, averaging just over 20 points per game. They also have nice defenders and rebounders in Mikelle Magalogo and Ashley Larsen.
There is one thing that most coaches agree on, including Morley and Price. This year’s tournament is a wide-open battle with a couple of front runners and a lot of squads capable of big surprises.
“I think it’s one of our deepest tournaments in a long time,” Price said. “Yeah, there’s two undefeated teams, but there is so much talent.”
Third-ranked Sky View moved to 5A after winning last year’s 4A state tournament without a loss. The Bobcats suffered two non-region losses — both to top 3A teams — Morgan and Logan.
The Bobcats are led by Kaylee Carlsen, who averages 17 points per game, and Hunter Krebs, who adds 13.2 points per game.
Fourth-ranked Riverton enters the tournament a No. 2 seed thanks to two region losses. The first loss came against Lone Peak in its first region game, and can be blamed, at least in part, on the fact that the team lost it’s three starting guards to injuries. The Silverwolves captured second-place in the region with increasingly consistent play that often centers around sophomore forward Morgan Kane, who averages 16.82 points and Tiena Afu, who averages 14.77 points per game.
Riverton lost just one more region game in that first-round of games to eventual region champion American Fork. The Silverwolves avenged that loss in the second round of league play giving the Cavemen their only region loss this season.
“There may not be a lot of people talking about Riverton,” Price said. “But Riverton just killed American Fork. That’s opening some eyes.”
Morley also mentioned Riverton as a team to watch.
“I think they may have the two best post players, or at least the best 1-2 punch,” he said. There is a reason Morley is paying attention to Riverton. If the Silverwolves win their first-round game against a very good Clearfield team, and Copper Hills manages to beat a dangerous Davis squad, the Grizzlies will face that 1-2 punch.
Like Price, Morley said he and his players are simply focused on the challenges immediately in front of them. And for the time being, that’s the Darts.
Price pointed out that there could be a lot of teams in the mix to make it to that championship game — including unranked teams like Fremont.
“I think they might have the most experience coming into the tournament,” Price said. “They won a state championship two years ago and they played for it last year, and they have some of those players back this year. I think they play really well as a tournament team.” Fremont faces Pleasant Grove in the first round, while Brighton, a team in and out of the rankings, will play West. The Bengals are led by 5A’s scoring leader, Dani Barton.
Fifth-ranked American Fork will play Mountain Crest, while one of the day’s best games may come at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday as Bingham, a second seed, and Viewmont, a three seed, square off.
The Cavemen are led by Taylor Moeaki, who averages 13.52 points, Paige Farnsworth, who averages 9.43 points, and Taylor Franson, who adds 8.17 points per game.
Bingham finished second in region play, and the Miners are led by Leya Harvey, who averages 12 points per game, Sierra McNicol, who adds 9 points and Madison Loftus, who leads the team with 15 points per game.
Regardless of what teams managed to do in the regular season, most coaches agree the playoffs are a unique challenge that brings out the best in teams, both expected and unexpected.
“I think everyone had Layton pegged as one of the best teams, if not the best team,” Morley said. “But it’s so wide open this year, there are six or seven teams that could win it. I feel like we’re one of those teams, but you know how the state tournament is, you have to stay healthy, make shots and have a little bit of luck along the way.”