RICHFIELD — An eventful Region 9 basketball season will come to a close on Wednesday evening with one of Southern Utah’s teams hoisting the state trophy. Either the Desert Hills Thunder or Cedar Reds will walk away from the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield as the 4A state champion.
The 2:30 p.m. tipoff will pit the No. 4 Thunder against the No. 6 Reds, two teams that are all too familiar with each other already. They played the highest scoring game in 15 years of Southern Utah history in a 101-100 double overtime thriller at the Thunderdome on Jan. 22 and followed it with a 70-65 game in Cedar City on Feb. 19 in the regular season finale.
Both teams defended their home court in the 1-1 split. Now they meet at a neutral site with everything on the line.
“We know who they are; they know who we are,” Cedar head coach Mark Esplin said. “There’s no surprises.”
Both teams played to 10-4 records in the Region 9 campaign, tying with Crimson Cliffs for second place behind Dixie. Cedar was the only team to break 1,000 points in league play, scoring 1,045. Desert Hills missed the millennium mark by a lone point to finish second in scoring.
Cedar tied for the fourth-best defense in Region 9, while Desert Hills finished seventh out of eight, though they were only four points behind Cedar’s 845 allowed. In two contests decided by a total of four points, the teams showed just how close they are to each other.
In the first matchup at Desert Hills, the Reds had to battle back after playing from behind for the majority of the game. Desert Hills jumped out 20-11 to start the game and held a double-digit lead at the end of the second and third quarters. The Reds entered the fourth having to come back from a 64-52 score, and they fought to a 76-76 draw by the final horn.
Gaige Savage, who scored 30 points total in the game, got Cedar to 100 points with just a few moments left on the clock in double overtime before Mason Landdeck hit the game winner with two seconds remaining. Landdeck scored an even 50 in the contest.
At Cedar on Feb. 19, it was the Reds’ turn to allow a late lead to be pressured. They led 60-45 with just over four minutes to play before the Thunder roared to nine straight points. Desert Hills got within four points before the final horn.
When the tournament moved to Richfield, Cedar outlasted the No. 3 Crimson Cliffs Mustangs 64-62 in the quarterfinals. Desert Hills reached the semis after topping No. 5 Sky View by 20 points.
Both teams nearly saw their seasons end in the semifinals, however.
Cedar played a close game to the end with No. 7 Ridgeline, which had knocked out the defending champion Flyers in the last round. The Reds and Riverhawks were within five points of each other at each of the first three buzzers, including a tie entering the fourth quarter.
Cedar went on an 11-0 run to start the last frame, but Ridgeline battled back to come within two points before the Reds pulled away on free throws, 66-61.
Desert Hills watched an eight-point advantage with two minutes left quickly turn into a one-point disadvantage with less than an a minute remaining against No. 1 Juan Diego. Reggie Newby landed a game-winning 3-pointer from the corner with seven seconds left, 52-50.
Now the Thunder meet the Reds in the finals with a chance to complete their mission.
“Our goal was to play the last game of the last day of the season,” Desert Hills head coach Chris Allred said.
The teams match up well against in each in size and abilities. Move-in Landdeck and Gaige Savage are strong point guards capable of scoring or dishing. Dallin Grant poses a big threat for Cedar, countered by Keegan Munson for the Thunder. Luke Armstrong also fills that role for Cedar. The Thunder have outside shooters in Newby and Peyton Holmes. The Reds have Treyton Tebbs and Zab Santana.
It may be a final hurrah for a Cedar group that has played together for around a decade. Esplin said his team’s identity and chemistry is from being the “small town” team.
“This team has been together since third grade,” Esplin said. “It is who we are. It’s what we are. I’m glad. I feel bad for the kids at D-Hills (that) move-ins replaced and didn’t get much time or make the team.”
The Reds battled through a season that saw them slowly work their way up the standings as an outsider looking in when Desert Hills and Dixie stormed off to undefeated starts. Esplin said seven of their top eight players missed time with COVID-19. Armstrong, Tebbs and junior guard Ty Harrison did not play in their first meeting with the Thunder.
A win on Wednesday would give Cedar its fourth state title but the first since 1995. Desert Hills could claim the first in its program. Esplin was the assistant coach to Cedar’s girls team that won the title in 2019, and Allred coached Desert Hills girls to a championship in 2014.
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