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Jacob Wiegand, Deseret News
The East Leopards gather in the locker room following their 66-56 victory over the Viewmont Vikings in the Class 5A state quarterfinals at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.
Our team, we are like sisters on the court. We all love each other and play for one another. —East senior Lani Taliauli

TAYLORSVILLE — Leading 44-43 with 1:59 remaining in the third quarter of Wednesday’s 5A quarterfinal against Viewmont, Olosaa Solovi’s Leopards hit the accelerator. A 14-0 run that extended into the final period helped East prevail 66-59.

Viewmont started fouling midway through the fourth quarter but the Leopards responded by making 13-19, 4th quarter charity tosses. The win sets up a third meeting between East and Highland, this one a 5A semifinal.

Solovi credited his region play for getting his girls ready for this moment.

“Our region, Region 6 has been tough all year nobody has been able to separate,” he said. “I think our region has prepared us to make a run in the playoffs.”

Coming into the contest East’s main focus was finding a way to slow down Viewmont senior Mercedes Staples. A tenacious East defense took turns bumping Staples off her spots and being physical with her at every opportunity. At halftime, Staples had just three points, all coming at the foul line.

East senior, Liana Kaitu’u’s got the call for a large part of the defensive responsibilities on Staples. Kaitu’u led East in scoring with 15 but fouled out with four minutes remaining.

“I love Mercedes, I’ve played with her before and we’re actually cousins too, so it was fun going up against her,” Kaitu’u said. “I know to be physical with her. She doesn’t like to be bumped and so that was our game plan, that, and to be smart with her.”

With Staples struggling, the rest of the Viewmont team was not. Senior guard Kenna Morris took four shots in the first half, making four, all of them 3-pointers. She led the Vikings in scoring with 16 points. Neither team could pull away from each other with the biggest lead of the half, being 9-6 East on the strength of a Lealani Falatea's 3-pointer.

East capitalized on some strong 3-point shooting in the third period. Deserae Falatea, Margarita Satini and senior center, Lani Taliauli each hit triples. When Taliauli’s deep ball dropped, the East players, coaches and fans erupted as one.

“Lani creates a mismatch because of the way she can shoot the ball,” Solovi said. “She’s got great hands and great feet and she can shoot. She’s probably the best 3-point shooter on our team and it forces other teams to step out on her.”

East led it 51-43 heading into the final period.

When the 14-0 run ended mid-way through the final period, East led it 56-43. The Vikings cut the lead to single digits several times, 59-51 and 60-53 on baskets from Melissa Sorenson but East made six-of-eight free throws down the stretch to seal the deal and send the Leopards to the 5A semifinals.

“Our team, we are like sisters on the court,” Taliauli said. “We all love each other and play for one another.”

East improved to 21-2 on the season, and for Solovi, the win goes back to playing great defense on Staples, who finished a brilliant career with 11 points.

“We just knew how great of a player she is and we were ‘t going to wait and see if she was going to go off, we were going to try to make her work for everything,” Solovi said.

On facing Highland for the third time, Taliauli says she expects nothing but the effort from the Rams.

“It’s going to be fun, it’s another game,” Taliauli said. “We’ve played them twice and they are going to come hard but it’s going to be fun.”