He’s led us all year long. He’s been incredible for us all year long. —Salem Hills coach Jimmy Degraffenreid
OREM — Salem Hills's James Nelson didn't allow it to completely sink in throughout most of the game's 32 minutes, but, when he did, it was a moment he won't soon forget.
With 6.8 seconds left, and the Skyhawks leading 63-55 during Saturday's 4A state championship versus Juan Diego, play was stopped as Carson Peterson went to the line with two free throws. At that point, Nelson raised his arms exultantly over his head and yelled toward the Salem Hills student section. At that point, every Salem Hills fan followed Nelson's lead around the UCCU Center, cheering as loud as they had all game.
At the final buzzer, with Salem taking a 64-55 win, those same fans stormed the floor to celebrate with as much enthusiasm as any fanbase upon taking a state championship.
“You think about it all the time, but you really don’t know what it’s like until you get it done,” Nelson said, taking a pause from the raucous celebration. “I can’t explain it. I’m just so happy for my family, for our fans, my teammates and coaches — it means just so much for all of us.”
Just under 16 minutes of game play earlier, it was again Nelson taking the lead, this time furiously pushing the action at the outset of the second half, with the Soaring Eagle leading 21-20 at the break. The 6-foot-5 senior scored his team's first eight points of the half, to take the lead at 28-25 about midway through the second quarter.
“He’s led us all year long. He’s been incredible for us all year long,” said Salem Hills coach Jimmy DeGraffenried of his senior leader, who led all scorers with 27 points.
Just as the fans did at the close, Nelson's teammates followed his lead, answering Juan Diego's physical play blow-for-blow, while mindful to push the action at any and every opportunity. Standout play throughout the second half, and for most of the game, came from seniors Tyson Bishop and Cole Griffin, along with players such as junior Peterson, who provided some key heroics late.
Bishop finished with 13 points and Griffin nine, with DeGraffenried pointing out how big Bishop was down the stretch.
“Tyson Bishop sure came up big for us in the fourth quarter, and made some great shots for us,” DeGraffenried said. “I’m very proud of all the guys.”
As for Nelson, he seized his opportunity, as a result of settling into the game flow established in the first half.
“It took me a half to really understand their tendencies and how exactly to attack them,” said Nelson, who had 17 second half points. “But, once I did, there was no holding back. I love physical games. That’s where I’m at my best.”
But Juan Diego was certain to respond to everything thrown at it, at least initially, and closed the third quarter strong to take a 38-35 lead heading into the game's final eight minutes.
Things went back-and-forth throughout the fourth, until an 8-2 run midway through helped Salem Hills separate a bit, leading 48-43. The remainder saw the Skyhawks continue their aggressive play and, more importantly, make foul shots, to come away with an inspiring win.
Just before the Salem Hills boys took their championship, it was the Skyhawk girls doing the same, with a win over Hurricane. The result was a double-dose of excitement for the Salem faithful, who spilled into the postgame celebration.
“I think a lot of it is because both the boys and girls just won. I don’t know how often that happens,” DeGraffenried said in a rare moment breaking free from the surrounding fans. “It’s incredible. Two great teams, and they love each other, that’s the greatest thing.”
As for Nelson, he took inspiration from the girls' team, not wanting to drive back to Salem with just one championship trophy.
“We couldn’t have the girls get it done, and not us. That couldn’t happen. We couldn’t let the girls beat us,” Nelson said.