He can’t be guarded. —Orem head coach Golden Holt on Puka Nacua
OREM — Ever since his team played the Olympus Titans in the Martin Luther King Tournament on Jan. 15, Orem junior Puka Nacua has believed his Tigers are the best team in the state or at the very least the 4A classification. They may have lost to the Titans, but as far as Nacua is concerned, the Tigers showed what they were made of that day.
“Every game that I come into I believe that we are the best team,” said Nacua. “We played Olympus earlier in the year and lost, but we gave them a good run for their money. That was a testament to me that we can hang with the best. I think we are the best team in 4A.”
After Orem’s performance Thursday afternoon at UVU’s UCCU center it is certainly hard to argue with him.
Led by Nacua, who finished with a game-high 27 points, Orem dominated the Desert Hills Thunder, particularly in the first half, earning a 71-56 victory.
The game wasn’t even as close as the lopsided score indicated, as the Tigers jumped out to a 21-6 first quarter lead and a 45-15 advantage at halftime.
They shot a cool 62.5 percent from the field in the first half, including 45.5 percent from behind the arc, all the while holding the Thunder to just 6-of-35 shooting.
Nacua was absolutely unstoppable in the first half, scoring 19 points on seven of eight shots, including threes 3's.
He wasn’t alone either. Ross Reeves added 11 first-half points, en route to 13 for the game.
Simply put, the Tigers first half was a masterpiece.
“I took a drink. It was nice,” Orem head coach Golden Holt said. “Thirty point leads at state don’t happen very often.”
“This is a really good group of boys,” he continued. “We hadn’t put together a half this season, on the 10 level. That was really fun to watch. Puka, I think made his first eight shots. He can’t be guarded. Whether he makes his shot or not is the question. When he makes big shots good things happen for us.”
“I was ready to take their head off,” said Nacua. “They were playing off me so I just let it fly. I don’t like to shoot the ball, I’d rather get everyone else involved, but they were playing off. It was my time to shoot the ball I guess.”
While the Orem offense was particularly impressive, it was the defense that decided the game.
The Tigers held the Thunder to just two field goals in the first quarter, both three-pointers. Desert Hills doubled its makes in the second, to four field goals, but the Tigers defense was simply stifling.
“We did something midyear that I have never done before and that straight man, no switching,” said Holt. “Nick Emery came and helped us coach and he plays really good defense. He came in and helped the boys take pride in who they are guarding. We got a lot better at hedging but then staying with the man and when our best guys are guarding their best guys I like our chances.”
“(Our defense) was huge,” added Nacua. “We watched a ton of film. We knew who was going to try to score for them so we tried to focus on them and let the other players beat us. That was the game-plan. I don’t think their other players stepped up enough. They didn’t make enough shots.”
The Thunder adjusted in the second half, eventually scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter, but by then the game was out of reach.
“Tom Osborne said at Nebraska that you don’t win the game at the end of the game,” said Holt. “At some point you break the other teams will. I think we broke their will pretty early on. It is hard to get down that big in a game like that and come back.”
With the win the Tigers advanced to the semifinals, to be played Friday, March 2, where they will face the Juan Diego Soaring Eagle.