That was crazy, a lot of momentum on both sides of the court. —Karlee Eyre
RICHFIELD — It all came down to those monotonous hours of free throw shooting and being brave when it matters most.
As the only two seniors on either team exchanged big shots and offered critical leadership in the 1A state championship game Saturday night, the players who look up to them did what they could to end the high school careers of Milford’s Elena Yee and Panguitch’s Jordan Bennett with the most glorious finish they could muster.
The result was a basketball lover’s buffet of athleticism, sportsmanship and strategy, punctuated by some riveting, high-pressure plays.
“I don’t know what to think,” said Karlee Eyre of the final minutes that punctuated a well-played, hard-fought title game that ended with Panguitch holding on for a 61-56 victory over Milford. “It was crazy. We kept it together, even in foul trouble. We stayed calm, and we tried to play our game. That was crazy, a lot of momentum on both sides of the court.”
Panguitch head coach Curtis Barney didn’t even have to be asked how he’d describe that game that earned him a record-tying 11th state championship.
“Wow,” he said, taking in a deep breath as his team celebrated their win with the school’s student body. “That was about as far from 30 points as you can get and still win. I’m sitting here in awe thinking, ‘How did we win that game?’ It’s probably the most points we’ve given up all year.”
Panguitch’s strategy has been simple — hold teams to under 30 points and the wins will come, and usually with a much greater margin of victory. But Milford had every intention of leaving its first state championship game with their first state title.
“Big shots by both teams,” Barney said, putting his hands on his head. “Their girls came down and hit a big shot, and then our girls, who like the outside shot, come down and hit one. It wasn’t anything they feared, but they were willing to take it, (and that’s) what I was proud of.”
It wasn’t just one player on either team. With 3:50 to play in the fourth quarter, Preslee Barnson single-handedly erased an eight-point deficit with three field goals — two of them 3-pointers. After the game-tying three, Bobcat Jordan Bennett gave Panguitch a three-point lead by hitting a trey. Then Yee and Kapri Orton exchanged free throws to keep the game within the grasp of both teams.
“We tried to calm them down when (Milford) was making that run,” Barney said of the game’s final mintues. “We’d say, ‘Ok, we’re still in the game. We’re even or ahead a little bit. Work for you good shot. Kapri (Orton) was so big for us with her espeed. We knew they were going to put pressure on us (in the form of a full-court press), and I felt like we handled that really well.”
Eventually, however, foul trouble ended the game early for three of the Tigers’ starters, while Panguitch only lost one. And the player most often at the line was the on responsible for bringing the ball down the court — Orton. She hit 14 of 16 free throws, and finished with 25 points and four assists. Karlee Eyre added 12 points, while Bennett finished with five points, six rebounds and a steal.
“I’m just so proud of my girls and their free throw shooting,” Barney said. “We had about 10 days off after our region tournament, and we spent countless hours just saying, ‘You’re down by one; you’re shooting one-and-one.’ We spent hours and hours on that.”
Orton said those hours of practice helped her focus on making those critical baskets over and over when the pressure was palpable and the entirety of her home town was watching.
“We shoot them all the time during practice,” she said, as her teammates cut down the net hanging from the hoop on which she made most of her shots. “And they paid off. I just had to have confidence.”
It paid off as Milford just couldn’t ever completely wrestle the momentum away from Panguitch, despite heroic efforts from nearly every player who stepped on the court, starting with Yee, who finished with 28 points, and Barnson, who finished with 13 points before fouling out with about two minutes left in the game.
Barney said some of the motivation came from not even making it to the title game last season.
“It’s just girls who’ve had that year experience from last year when they were really big-eyed,” Barney said. “This year they were a little bit more determined to finish the job. But give Milford a lot of credit. They have a lot of good, young ballplayers, so they’ll be back, too.”
1A Girls All-Tournament Team
MVP: Brittney Henrie, Panguitch
Elena Yee, Milford
Kapri Orton, Panguitch
Jordan Bennett, Panguitch
Kierra Groll, Rich
Ervianne Cly, Monument Valley