By Nathaniel Smith
The Grand County boys basketball team is headed to Richfield with a shot at the state championship after defeating Union High School of Roosevelt in the first round of the playoffs. A loss to Union, the No. 2 seed from Region 14, would’ve ended the season for the fifth-seed Red Devils, but a dominant second half allowed Grand to come out on top. After beating the Union Cougars 76-65, Grand faced Emery in the quarterfinals.
The game against Union was close through the first half, with Grand trailing by a pair after two quarters. In the third, the Red Devils quickly erased the small deficit and built a lead of their own. Grand stayed locked in during the fourth and ran away with an 11-point victory. Led by a core of six talented seniors, Grand will now compete in the three-day gauntlet of the state tournament this weekend with a chance to take home the trophy.
Grand won the opening tip and senior center Cameron Hoppensteadt opened the scoring with a drive to the basket that he finished with a left-handed layup. The Cougars responded with a quick three to take the lead. Both teams were feeling each other out and scoring was hard to come by early. After Hoppensteadt sank one of two tries from the charity stripe, Grand only scored six more points in the quarter off three-pointers from seniors Teddy Park and Connor Guerrero. Grand trailed 12-9 after the first period in which the team shot only three of 12 from the field. The Red Devils worked hard on the glass, coming up with lots of offensive rebounds, but they just couldn’t get the ball in the net.
Guerrero swatted a Cougar shot to start the second and then senior Kevin Park banked in a jumper from the left elbow. The two squads traded the lead back and forth, with neither team able to take advantage of frequent trips to the free throw line. As time dwindled away in the half, senior point guard Nolan Ramirez picked off a pass and set up Guerrero for an easy fast break score on the other end that gave Grand a slim one-point lead.
It looked as if Grand would carry the lead into the break until Ramirez got a bit too aggressive on defense and fouled a Union player shooting a three at the buzzer. The Cougars converted all three free throws to take a 31-29 advantage at the half.
After the break, Grand dialed in its offense. Senior Tyson Horton nailed a triple from the wing to start the third quarter. Then Hoppensteadt scored after an agile spin move allowed him to get right to the rim. The team also tightened the screws on defense.
Ramirez picked a Union player’s pocket and was fouled while attacking the basket on the other end. Only a minute into the quarter, Grand had flipped the two-point deficit into a three-point lead. Union leveled the score with a three-pointer of its own, but Hoppensteadt was too much for the Cougars to handle. He battled in the post, coming up with tough boards and finishing with a soft touch. He also demonstrated his range by burying a corner three.
The Red Devils kept their defensive intensity high with active hands and quick rotations and took advantage of the mistakes and misses caused by pushing the tempo at every opportunity. By the end of the third, Grand led 53-48.
Grand didn’t let up in the final quarter. Ramirez stole the ball on Union’s first possession, which led to an open three for Teddy Park. The next possession, Park again found the bottom of the net on a three-point attempt. Union called a timeout, suddenly down by 11 with only seven minutes to play. The Cougars scrambled to get back in the game, but the Red Devils were not about to let the lead slip away. Grand continued working the ball into the post and drawing fouls while staying focused on the defensive end. Union managed to close the gap to eight at one point, but Grand quickly extended the lead back to double digits and kept it there for most of the fourth. The Red Devils made seven of their nine free throw attempts in the final two minutes to seal the win.
The Red Devils shared the ball well, with four players reaching double digits in scoring. Hoppensteadt lead the team with 24 points, 15 of which came in the second half. Teddy Park and Guerrero each chipped in 13. Ramirez added 11 points. Kevin Park fell just short of double digits with nine points.
After The Times-Independent went to press, Grand faced the Emery Spartans for the third time this season. Emery won the first matchup 81-70 in Castle Dale thanks to a 32-point effort from Kyson Stilson. The Red Devils then won the second meeting in Moab in a game where Grand’s offense looked unstoppable, posting an impressive 94 points. Stilson wasn’t able to torch the Red Devils the second time around and only managed to put up seven. The third meeting in the quarterfinals, played on a neutral floor, could be anyone’s game and will be worth all the marbles.
After the inter-region games in Orem, the rest of the state tournament will be played at the Sevier Valley Center on the Snow College campus in Richfield from Thursday, Feb. 21 to Saturday, Feb. 23. Grand’s game with Emery was played at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. A victory would move Grand to the semifinals for a game against the winner of Richfield and Judge Memorial. A loss to the Spartans would send the Red Devils to the consolation bracket with a chance at fifth place.