Late in the season, when most teams are playing their best, most consistent basketball, the Bountiful Braves faced a brutal test — how to handle the loss of one of the state’s best players.
They went from undefeated to losing three of four games.
Still, head coach Joel Burton said the late-season struggles may actually make the Braves stronger as they head into the playoffs with Kennedy Redding, but the experience of playing without her.
“I think it’s going to be a positive that we had to play without her,” Burton said. “We’re definitely glad to have her back. I still think we’ve got other kids who are really good. But we’re playing programs with everyone in place, and we were trying to adjust our offense. We had some struggles and some growing pains, but I do think it’s going to be a positive.”
Losing Redding would be a devastating blow to most programs. The senior, who will play volleyball at BYU, averages 22.9 points and 13.3 rebounds per game.
Bountiful, now ranks third, behind Alta and Springville, and the Braves face a tough challenge in Monday’s opening round at Salt Lake Community College when they take on Murray, a fourth seed.
With no defending champion, as Sky View moved to 5A, most coaches see this year’s tournament as a wide-open race. But there are definitely some favorites, including Alta, Springville and Bountiful.
“There are a lot of teams that could win it,” he said. “There are a few front runners, but I do think there are a lot of good teams and if you’re not playing your best, they’re going to get you.”
Top-ranked Alta won the Region 7 title without a loss (12-0) under the leadership of first-year coach Elizabeth Gustafson.
The Hawks have some impressive wins this season and played one of the toughest non-regions schedules of any team in the class.
The Hawks boast a very balanced offense with three players averaging double digits — junior guard Mariah Martin (16.4), freshman guard Kemery Martin (13.4), and junior guard/forward Tatiana Thompson (11.9). In fact, statistically speaking, the Hawks have the best offense in the state, averaging 68.9 points per game.
“I’m pretty excited about what my team can do in 4A,” Gustafson said. “There are quite a few teams that are pretty impressive. The Hawks played 5A last year, so all but one of this year’s preseason games were against 5A teams.
Alta takes on Spanish Fork in the first round of play, but she said she’s focused on a different team.
“I’m only worried about one team and that’s Alta,” she said. “We’ll do our best and be successful.” Second-ranked Springville opens with Timpanogos. The Red Devils, who also spent some time at No. 1, are led by Lydia Austin, who averages 15.2 points, and Savannah Sumsion, who adds 11.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.
Fourth-ranked Salem Hills, a squad that earned the second seed in tough region race, will start the playoffs with Timpview. The Skyhawks are led by sophomore forward Lauren Gustin, who averages 16.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Like Alta, they have three players who average double figures in scoring – Gustin; senior Jane Nelson (13.6 points); and junior Sadie Hodgson (10.7 points).
Fifth-ranked Maple Mountain suffered a blow from which it will be extremely difficult to recover. The state’s leading scorere, BYU-bound guard Liz Eaton, tore her ACL a few weeks ago, and it will make the post-season much more difficult for the Golden Eagles.
It isn’t just Eaton’s 28 points and 11.2 rebounds the team will miss, it’s her on-court intensity, grit and leadership. Still the team has talented players on the roster, led by junior guard Nicole Heyn, who averages 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Maple Mountain will face Mountain View in the first game of Monday’s opening round.
Region 6’s No. 1 team, Skyline, faces a tough draw in Bonneville, a team that is capable of pulling off an upset. Region five No. 2 Highland opens the tournament with Olympus, and the Rams could be one of the tournament’s surprises.