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WEST VALLEY CITY — Brighton has practiced late-game scenarios often throughout the year. So, when it actually came down to crunch time Friday, the Bengals resorted to muscle memory.
"We spend a lot of time on end-of-game situations, almost every day," said Brighton first-year coach Jeff Gardner. "I drew upon that (in a late-game huddle), 'we spent a lot of time on this, we know what we need to do, execute, get good shots and the big thing is get defensive rebounding.'"
With two minutes remaining, Brighton forced Riverton into missing its final seven shots until a meaningless 3-pointer as time expired to clinch its first appearance in the 5A state championship game since 2000 with a 61-56 win in the Maverik Center Friday.
"We're thrilled to be in the position that we're in — couldn't be prouder of our kids," Gardner said. "We played three very good worthy opponents, and to come out on top on all three is a great accomplishment. That's a great team and we're ecstatic to get out of there with a victory."
Brighton (17-7) will meet Lone Peak in the title game — looking to hang its first banner since 1996.
"Brighton's been good long before I got here," said Gardner, who inherited the program after coaching at Mountain View last season. "I'm just carrying the torch. It's been fun to see them come together as a team and perform at a high level at the most important time of the year."
The game was close at the start until Brighton closed the opening quarter with a 7-0 run, capped by Bryce Callahan's 3-pointer for a 14-6 lead.
It was the first of three treys from the smooth-shooting forward. Callahan, a 6-foot-4 junior, finished with 14 points and seven rebounds after entering the game averaging slightly under nine points.
"I kept getting open on the pick-and-pop," Callahan said. "I just knocked my shots down."
"He's always come up big for us in big spots. He's got a lot of confidence — he's a great player," said Gardner of Callahan. "It's been fun to watch Bryce's progression through the season to become a top level player for us."
Riverton (13-11) opened the second quarter with five straight points by Stephen Holm off a 3-pointer and two free throws to cut the lead to 14-11 with 7:23 left in the half.
Then, following a Bengals' bucket, Holm vacuumed attention into the paint on a hard drive and spotted D McCleary, who swished another three-ball to even things at 16 apiece.
Brighton, as it eventually proved over the course of the game, had an answer for every 'Wolves run.
The Bengals went on an 8-0 sprint behind Callahan's second 3-pointer, Chris Eixenberger's bucket underneath and Zach Bernado's shot from the corner.
However, the Silver Wolves countered with a mini 5-0 journey, all courtesy of Bryce Stone, before Brighton's Brandon Miller nailed a free-throw extended jumper as time expired, ending the first half 26-21.
The 'Wolves only trailed by five despite shooting 29 percent in the first half after not giving Brighton a single free-throw in the first 16 minutes.
In the third quarter, with 4:29 on the clock, Miller caught fire. The Bengals' leading scorer at more than 20 points per game, he completed an old-fashioned three-point play. Then, after muscling two points in the key, he kicked it to Zach Wertz, who buried the corner long-ball, giving Brighton the 43-33 advantage with 2:25 in the third.
"The thing about Brandon is he can go get his shot whenever he wants," Gardner said of his junior guard. "I think it was important to mix it up and go outside and in. He had a big and-1 at a critical time getting to the basket."
Miller poured in a game-high 24 points, with 15 coming in the second half.
"I just come out with the same mindset every game," Miller said. "(I) just come out and play my game — the shot has been feeling good lately. Just keep doing what I do."
Riverton wouldn't go away, however. The Silver Wolves had already overcame a double-figure deficit earlier in the tournament.
With seven minutes left, the 'Wolves cut the lead to eight on a McCleary backdoor layup. Brighton, on the ensuing possession, patiently worked the ball until Miller hit a one-bounce pull-up 3-pointer to push the lead back to 52-41.
"I've been in this (late-game) situation so many times before and it's just something I've always been able to do," Miller said. "It just kind of comes naturally. Just know the game and take care of it."
The Silver Wolves made another run late in the fourth.
Riverton's Stone connected on a contested 3-pointer with 2:22 left. The following possession, after Brighton's Eixenberger scored on the opposite end of the floor, Holm rimmed another trey to cut the lead to 56-52. It was the smallest deficit the 'Wolves faced since the 5:35 mark in the second quarter.
With the minimal lead, Brighton tightened the clamps on the defensive end, and although it missed three consecutive free throws in the waning moments, prevailed by not allowing a single point until Connor Henderson hit a 35-footer with the game already decided.
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