Olympus edges Highland for first semifinal berth since 2000Mar 03, 2021 09:49PM ● By Travis Barton
A raucous crowd for both teams watched as the Olympus High girls basketball team beat Highland 49-43 at Olympus.
By Travis Barton | [email protected]ls.com
The saying goes it’s tough to beat a team three times in one season. That adage was put to the test in Olympus quarterfinal matchup with region rival and defending state champ Highland, a team the Titans defeated twice this year for Highland’s only region losses on the season.
The Titans won the third. Barely.
In a physical, intense contest, Olympus prevailed 49-43 over the Rams Tuesday night before a raucous crowd, sending the girls basketball program to its first semifinals since 2000.
The momentous victory required a full team effort, but especially composure at the free throw line.
“Highland is a good team,” Olympus head coach Whitney Hunsaker said after the game. “(Head coach) Kurt (Schneider) does a great job over there so it’s always going to be a battle, they’ve got some good players, but luckily we hit free throws down the stretch.”
Olympus went 11 of 12 from the line in the fourth quarter, both to take the lead and then keep it. Junior Brooklyn Davies nailed all eight of her fourth quarter free throws to ice the game and finish with a game-high 18 points.
“Gotta get them in,” Davies said when asked what she was thinking before taking the free throws. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking so just having the confidence and saying in my mind that I can get this in.”
The junior also finished the night two for three from beyond the arc to go along with four rebounds and two assists.
Her contributions were essential with Highland’s tough defense keeping Olympus’ two leading scorers, Alyssa Blanck and Abby Topham, in check.
“It was a big night for her,” Hunsaker said about Davies. “We as a coaching staff said ‘it’s time for Davies, time for her to score,’ and she did it tonight.”
Davies performance is perhaps more impressive considering a knee injury she’s dealt with all season. Her surgery is already scheduled just a few days after the season ends.
While she said it feels weak at times, she battles through it and relies on her team. “I have such great teammates that even if I’m not playing my best, they can step up.”
That extra level of trust might just be the difference in this year’s squad, she said.
“We’re really able to trust each other and just play basketball and have fun,” she said. “With this group, it just kind of clicks for us and we're able to have fun while we're playing.”
The Titans can keep playing having overcome Highland’s challenge, who looked likely to pull out the victory for large stretches of the game.
After the Titans jumped out to a 7-1 lead to start, the Rams slowly wrestled control of the game closing the first half on an 18-12 run for a tie game at half time.
Hunsaker began with her team in a 2-3 zone, but after two threes from Highland to end the first quarter, she switched between man and a zone trap the rest of the game. She noted Highland tended to hit more than five 3's in most of its wins.
“My rule was they get five and that’s it,” she said. “Especially with Carsyn Stephenson, Sophia Legate and Sose(fina) Langi; the three of them on that 3-point line, it’s scary.”
To Hunsaker’s dismay, Highland ended the game with six, two each from Stephenson and Legate and two quick ones from Kuulei Makaui to start the second half, putting the Rams up six.
“They made some good adjustments, hit those two 3’s and I was like, ‘oh shoot, we’re going back to man,’” Hunsaker said, noting how happy she was with her team’s ability to adjust mid-game.
Highland took a 32-29 lead into the fourth with momentum on its side. But one sequence of events turned the tide in the fourth.
With the Rams up 34-32 and about six minutes to go, junior Mary Sheets tied the game with a contested layup. Langi (Highland’s best performer on the night) was called for an offensive foul after Davies took a charge. Sheets followed that up with a 3-pointer before Davies hit a runner in the lane to complete the 7-0 run.
“Mary Sheets had some big buckets for us in the fourth, usually when your bench kid scores it’s a little more uplifting, just a little more powerful,” Hunsaker said. “That was a big moment.”
Davies said she felt they were settling for too many outside shots with Highland speeding them up. The Rams forced Olympus into 16 turnovers on the night, six more than the Titans region average.
“Highland has a really good defense and it's always a battle with them,” Davies said. “But I think when we slow down and play our pace, play our basketball—Olympus basketball—we find the right looks and are able to knock them down.”
Highland responded with a 6-0 run of its own to take a 40-39 lead. Davies then hit two free throws for a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
For Hunsaker, there was a touch of bittersweetness to beating a region rival in the quarterfinals.
“I don’t want to eliminate my region,” she said, noting the last four state champions have come from this region: Highland, East twice and Skyline. “This region has always been this powerhouse, I want to keep it that way. This is where the good teams are and it prepares you best for state. It’s kind of a bummer to eliminate, especially Highland, because they’re an awesome team.”
The win is yet another sign of progress for the Olympus girls basketball program, not just because of the result, but also the demeanor of the victory.
Last season, the Titans lost their road game at Highland 41-39, a close game that saw the Rams resilience and calm squeeze out the win. It also saw Hunsaker, who can get animated on the sideline, called for a technical.
Her demeanor on the sideline for the quarterfinal game exuded a level of composure Hunsaker said she’s worked on, recalling advice from one of her coaches she played for at Utah Valley University.
“He always said your players feed off of you,” whether it be body language or how you’re talking, she said noting there were times she “didn’t love” her body language. “I do try and think of what my coach told me: coach how you want them to play and they’ll usually respond.”
The Titans get two days off before its semifinal matchup with Farmington at 2 p.m. on Friday at Salt Lake Community College, a team Olympus lost to 57-38 back on Dec. 8. It was part of a preseason slate Hunsaker intentionally scheduled with tough teams, including another semifinalist in Springville.
“We lost some and won some,” she said of the preseason schedule. “Hopefully those we did lose we have learned from. I have seen us down the stretch make better decisions and I think it's been a result cause of that tough schedule we had this year so I'm feeling really good.”
The Titans hadn’t made it past the second round until this year under Hunsaker, nor had they made it to the semis since a state championship in 2000.
“I’m just kind of stoked,” she said. “It’s to the point where we can taste it now.”