Spotting an opponent 10 points at the start of a basketball game sounds like a tactic used by an older brother to convince his younger brother to play one-on-one.
It’s not, however, the best tactic in a state championship.
Westlake found how just how tough it is when you get in that type of a hole in a pressure-packed environment Saturday afternoon in the 6A title game against Davis at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville.
The No. 1-seeded Thunder couldn’t find a way to finish in the paint in the early going and the No. 7-seeded Darts — led by eight quick points from senior forward Chance Trujillo — took advantage by scoring the first 10 points of the game.
Westlake scrapped and battled but was never able to completely overcome that poor start and ended losing to Davis, 60-55.
“The mindset coming in was to attack the basket and own the paint,” Thunder head coach Nate Carling said. “I thought we kind of got what we wanted but the shots didn’t fall. We had some good looks but for whatever reason they didn’t fall for us today. Davis came in as the No. 7 seed with not a lot of pressure on them and boy, they hit shots. In my opinion, Davis is the toughest to in the state to play against when you are behind. They don’t beat themselves.”
Even though it found itself in a quick hole, Westlake still had chances to rally.
The Thunder got the lead to five points and had a fast break late in the second quarter, only to have the layup come hard off the board. The Darts got the rebound, were fouled on a 3-point attempt, made all three foul shots and went into the locker room at halftime with an eight-point edge as well as the always-important momentum.
But the frustration for the top seed was going to get worse in the second half, particularly because of how close it got to finishing the comeback.
Westlake put together a 7-0 run to cut Davis’s advantage to 40-37. After a Dart airball with time winding down at end of the third, the Thunder got caught by indecision and traveled with one second remaining.
That gave Trujillo time to hit a buzzer-beater on the baseline, which turned out to be a big bucket.
Westlake junior forward Willy Jensen drilled a 3-pointer and got fouled to start the final period, giving the Thunder a chance to get to within a single point.
But, as it did throughout the game, things slipped away from Westlake.
The free throw bounced out, then the Thunder committed a turnover and had a flurry of fouls, giving Davis a chance to hit 3-of-4 foul shots to regain the momentum.
“We made a couple of runs at them and got right on the cusp of breaking through,” Carling said. “We just didn’t quite do it and they had an answer. But our kids are champions because they were down and they showed championship-level resolve to get back in it.”
Westlake stayed close enough to be dangerous the rest of the way but the Davis went to a time-consuming stall and did just enough to hang on.
The Thunder ended up being led by Jensen, who tallied 16 points as part of a balanced effort. Senior Kaleb Furey added 13 points, while senior Noah McCord tacked on 12 points and pulled down seven rebounds.
Davis was paced by Trujillo, who scored 19 points including making five 3-pointers to pace the Darts.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the Westlake players and coaches because they knew that when it mattered most they hadn’t performed at the level they were capable of playing.
There were anguished tears, stunned disbelief and visible frustration as they left the court after accepting the second-place trophy.
“They are hurting really bad,” Carling said. “I’m hurting real bad. But at the end of the day, these kids are champions and anyone who has seen us play knows that they give it their all. They care for each other and they did things the right way every day.”
Even though the last step proved to be unattainable, Carling said it doesn’t take anything away from what his team accomplished this year.
“We ended the year as the No. 1 RPI team in the state with the highest winning percentage and the toughest strength of schedule,” Carling said. “We played anyone anywhere. We earned the No. 1 RPI. Then two minutes into Game No. 3 in region we lose our all-state center, our leading scorer and our leading rebounder. But the kids responded and won six straight games. They responded like champions again.”
He singled out the senior class and what it did to raise the level of basketball expectations at Westlake.
“We’ve had some great teams,” Carling said. “I’m so blessed to be at Westlake. For these guys to surpass everything that those other teams did is really unbelievable. We won 16 games in a row. These guys found a way to keep pushing the program forward. I’m excited to see the next group but hopefully these kids understand how great of an accomplishment this season was. It’s going to take a couple of days, but hopefully they will recognize and understand that.”