This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life. We’ve tried for the last three or four years to get to the state championship, and we are finally here and we are so pumped. —Copper Hills' Stockton Shorts
SALT LAKE CITY — In early February, Copper Hills lost its defensive identity. The toughness that had become the trademark of coach Andrew Blanchard’s program was nowhere to be found.
With its season in a precarious position, the former No. 1 team in 5A refused to let the adversity become the defining moment of its season.
Now, three weeks later, the Grizzlies are playing in Saturday’s 5A championship.
For the fifth straight game since its recommitment to get tough, Copper Hills played lights-out defense in Friday’s 5A semifinal, rolling past Westlake 58-40 at the Huntsman Center.
“We just weren’t doing the little things that made us a successful group early in the season,” said Blanchard, reflecting on the lull. “Went back and read the old Jay Bilas toughness article, and said this is what tough teams do.”
That toughness manifested itself with one defensive stop after another against the Thunder, which ranked sixth in 5A this season averaging 65 ppg.
A night after frustrating high-flying Lone Peak, Copper Hills held Westlake to just 30 percent shooting and didn’t allow a 3-pointer.
Copper Hills only trailed once very briefly in the first quarter in a convincing performance, with Charlie Olsen leading the way with 16 points and Stockton Shorts adding 14 points and nine rebounds.
“Feels amazing. This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life. We’ve tried for the last three or four years to get to the state championship, and we are finally here and we are so pumped,” said Shorts.
Copper Hills will face region rival Bingham in the 3 p.m. championship game on Saturday. The Grizzlies beat Bingham in a preseason meeting at the Utah Elite 8 tournament, but the Miners returned the favor by sweeping both region games.
Even though the Grizzlies won convincingly in the end, Westlake made things interesting early in the third quarter. Trailing 28-17 at the half, the Thunder capitalized on three straight Copper Hills turnovers to cut the deficit to 28-24.
“We knew they were going to make runs. They’re a good team, they’re here for a reason. They’re well-coached. We just needed to stop turning the ball over,” said Blanchard.
Copper Hills responded with a 10-0 run to stretch the lead back to 38-24 and realistically put the game out of reach.
“Basketball is a game of momentum and changing of momentum, and we try not to ride the roller coaster, but sometimes it’s a little bit hard with 16-, 17-year-old kids out there with a lot of pressure,” said Blanchard.
After its flurry in the third quarter, Westlake just couldn’t get anything going offensively, finishing with a season-low 40 points.
Asa McCord recorded 19 points and nine rebounds to lead the Thunder in the loss.
James Edward is the Deseret News prep editor and Real Salt Lake beat writer. EMAIL: email@example.com