We played those guys before and it was a really physical game then. We knew it was going to be physical and we prepared all week for a physical game. —Salem Hills senior James Nelson
OREM — With just over two minutes remaining in the first half of their quarterfinal matchup with the Dixie Flyers, the Salem Hills Skyhawks were sitting pretty, almost literally.
The Skyhawks had watched or rather actively defended the Flyers for a possession that had lasted well over a minute.
Dixie, the No. 1 seed and designated home team, had tried, in vain to penetrate the Salem Hills defense.
Flyers head coach Ryan Cuff had changed the offensive play call multiple times, his players had run all over the court hoping to find a seam and still Dixie couldn’t muster a decent shot attempt.
Dispirited perhaps by the lengthy sequence, not to mention the jeers of a sizable Salem Hills fan contingent, the Flyers got a little careless.
It was then that Salem Hills senior James Nelson announced himself, that is if the 25 points per game he had averaged this season hadn’t, to the 4A classification.
Nelson pounced on an errant Flyers pass, sprinted up the court unmolested and threw down a two-handed slam.
“We were making ‘em play on the outside because we were so stuck on the inside,” said Nelson. “They kept swinging it around. I just waited for them to get lazy and jumped the ball. I just timed it right.”
The Skyhawks did almost everything right Thursday afternoon at UVU’s UCCU Center.
Led by Nelson, who finished with a game-high 27 points, Salem Hills defeated Dixie 56-46, earning a berth in the semifinals.
Tyson Bishop added 12 points of his own for the Skyhawks, who also avenged an earlier loss to the Flyers.
The game was a close one, characterized by its extremely physical nature.
“We played those guys before and it was a really physical game then. We knew it was going to be physical and we prepared all week for a physical game,” said Nelson. “We have been in dog fights before. It was nothing new for us.”
Salem Hills head coach Jimmy DeGraffenried echoed his star, noting “we told the kids to be physical with them, front them and back ‘em. Get your hands straight up and make them make tough shots.”
Specifically, that meant Flyers guards Carson Bottema and Tanner Cuff. The duo had paced the Flyers all season long, to the tune of about 28 points per game, nine boards and five assists between them.
“We worked all week in practice on trying to take away Dixie’s guard’s posting,” said DeGraffenried. “I thought that our guys did an excellent job defensively making it hard on Bottema and Cuff, who are their best players and great players.”
Thanks to the Skyhawks' efforts, while Cuff scored 15 points, Bottema had just five.
And yet, Dixie won Region 9 for a reason, and despite trailing for practically the entire contest, made a game of it in the fourth quarter.
The Flyers got as close as four points early in the fourth and then attempted to full court press the Skyhawks, hoping to cause a few game-changing turnovers.
The strategy backfired in a big way, however, as Salem Hills broke the press time and again.
“We practice (breaking the press) all the time,” said Nelson. “They pressed us last game so we knew what their press was going to be like. We prepared all week for that press.”
“You can’t beat a press dribbling, so we just passed and cut through it,” he continued. “We kept throwing the ball down the court and attacking the hoop. They were fouling us and we kept getting to the free throw line.”
While by no means perfect from the charity stripe, the Skyhawks made more than enough to pull out the victory.
“We have had a lot of close games this year,” said DeGraffenried. “We have had to finish out some games strong at the end. I think our season prepared us for that. It wasn’t anything new to us today.”
Up next for Salem Hills, Friday, is a semifinal bout against the Sky View Bobcats, to be played at 5:50 p.m.