SALT LAKE CITY — Heading into the 4A state tournament, nobody gave top-seeded Woods Cross the respect it felt it deserved.
But that should all change following its quarterfinal matchup against Payson.
The Wildcats got rolling early and finished strong down the stretch to edge the third-seeded Lions 51-49 and advance to the 4A semifinals Wednesday night at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
“Nobody was really talking about us before the tournament. In all the articles, there were paragraphs and paragraphs on the other teams and then just one sentence on us. But it feels great to be here. I like being the underdog,” star guard Jordan Lewis said.
Woods Cross came out firing in the opening quarter to take a 13-9 lead and establish an early offensive rhythm.
The home team struggled to find their shots in the first minutes of the second quarter.
However, they quickly shook off the slow start as the defense led to some offense and Trevin Knell and Lewis came alive and rallied for 22 combined points to take a 31-23 lead at the break.
“It was a great start in the first half. These arenas are sometimes hard to shoot in and we were really excited about the way we started. I wish we could have kept the hot start going, but that’s what state tournament are all about. Every team is going to give you their best shot,” Woods Cross head coach Kasey Walkenhurst said.
Knell was especially impressive as he finished with 14 points in the opening 16 minutes on 5-of-11 shooting, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and was far from letting up. He finished with 20 points to lead the ‘Cats.
The star junior, along with Lewis, forward Cameron Allen and the Wildcats, came out in the third quarter and, after Payson cut it to a four-point game with just under three minutes left, got rolling to take a 42-36 advantage heading into the final eight minutes of play.
“Jordan is the glue to our team and gets us into all of our stuff. He’s a little bit quirky sometimes, but man, he makes some plays. Our guys just didn’t give up tonight. Every game it seems like we’ve had close games. This team just finds a way to win,” said Walkenhurst.
However, the Lions were far from ready to throw in the towel.
The visitors, led by senior forward Kolten Mortensen’s game-high 21 points, opened the fourth on a commanding 9-1 run to open their largest lead of the game at 45-43 before Knell came firing back with four more points to tie things back up at 47-47 with just 3:00 remaining.
“I just told them to defend and rebound and I thought we did a good job. Payson was trying to run the clock out, and we got a lucky break. Sometimes to win state games, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky. We’ve had teams go on runs against us and our guys do a really good job of keeping a cool head,” Walkenhurst said.
After swapping baskets and a key forced turnover by Woods Cross with just 11 seconds left, Lewis used a couple screens, drove to the hoop and kissed it off the glass with the foul to take a 51-49 lead in the final seconds and eventually propel the 'Cats into the 4A semifinals.
“We drew it up in the timeout. If I had it, I was going up but if I didn’t, I was either calling a timeout to set something else up or find another guy in the corner. It feels great to be here — it means a lot to me,” said Lewis.
Woods Cross is now set to take on top-seeded Olympus in a heavyweight 4A semifinal matchup Friday afternoon at 2:30 pm at the University of Utah.
Ryan Love is a full-time student and has been a part-time sportswriter for Deseret News since Oct. 2012.
Follow him on Twitter @RLove7724