It was all mental for us. We finally stepped it up at the end and finished. —East forward Liana Kaitu'u
Opponents have been looking for ways to beat the East Leopards. For many years, finding a solution wasn’t difficult. Not so this season.
The Brighton Bengals came into the 5A girls state tournament as heavy underdogs and coach Jim Gresh’s plan Monday evening was to slow the game. It worked for 3½ quarters until the Leopards’ roster of interchangeable parts proved too much in a 49-37 East victory at the Salt Lake Community College arena.
“It was all Brighton,” said East coach Olosaa Solovi. “They did a good job of slowing it down. We’ve seen it all year. Everyone is looking for something new.”
Rae Falatea scored 12 points, Liana Kaitu’u had 11, Rita Satini 10 and Lani Taliauli nine for East but, most importantly, they all came together in the fourth quarter during a 10-0 run that advanced the Leopards to a second-round game Wednesday against Viewmont, a fact that made Solovi very happy.
“We’re not used to this,” he said.
Solovi and the Leopards aren’t used to the attention, either, but the Leopards finished tied for first place in Region 6, captured a No. 1 seed with a late-season win at Skyline and, now with a 20-2 record, more attention is coming.
“Bring it on,” Solovi said. “If I’m talking to you guys (reporters), it means we're moving forward, so let’s do this again soon.”
For much of the game, the Leopards were more nervous.
The game remained close – East led 34-31 when Falatea gave the Leopards some much-needed momentum with a three-pointer from in front of the Leopards’ bench. Then Taliauli got loose for a pair of baskets and, after a timeout, Taliauli found Kaitu’u for an easy layup that seemed to rattle the fourth-seeded Bengals. Satini got a rare steal off the full-court press that put the finishing touch on the 10-0 run and Brighton’s season was over.
“It was all mental for us,” said Kaitu’u. “We finally stepped it up at the end and finished.”
Moss topped Brighton with 12 points, while Warner added eight. The Bengals finished the season with a 9-11 record and were hurt by their inability to keep East off the offensive boards. East won the rebounding battle 33-26, including 17 on the offensive end.
Bruce Smith grew up in Boise, Idaho, and is a longtime newspaper sports writer. He writes primarily high-school sports articles for the Deseret News.