Title game matchup too tall for game Thunderbirds

As it had discovered in two earlier meetings this season, the Piute High boys basketball team was up against a tall order against Panguitch this season. After knocking off the Bobcats a year ago to win the state championship, the Thunderbirds came up short this year, losing the UHSAA Class 1A title game 58-46 March 4 at the Sevier Valley Center.

“Their size and athleticism is hard to compete against,” said Piute coach Eric Jessen. “When they have you by three or four inches at every position, it’s just hard to fight against that. They did what they were supposed to do. They’d post up and it didn’t matter who they put in there. They’d rotate through and post us up.”

In the early going, the T-Birds used long-distance shooting to maintain contact with Panguitch, staying within a three to five-point margin most of the night. Junior Jaxon Westwood, in particular, hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter This Piute team, however, is not built to live and die from behind the 3-point line.

“We haven’t relied on the three for our season,” Jessen said. “We’ve really been a slashing, cutting offense. We average three or four threes a game. I have kids that can shoot well, but that’s not our style. That’s not who we’ve been all year. It’s hard to keep hitting it. Shooting over their length alters your shot a little bit.”

Down 29-24 to open the second half, Piute showed what is its signature team trait. These guys just refuse to quit. The Bobcats opened the advantage to 10 points early in the third, but a Kole Westwood three trimmed the margin to four points at one point, and later, with 2:15 left in the third period, Kole Westwood scored on a more traditional three-point play to get the Thunderbirds back within two points at 39-27. That was as close as it got as Panguitch turned up the intensity again, creating a 44-39 lead by the end of the third stanza and then opening it up from there.

It was an uphill battle all night long for a game, but overmatched, Piute squad.

“Against a team like that, you’re just fighting for everything you can get just to be in it,” Jessen said. “That’s what we did all day long. I tried every offense we had written in our playbook and we came up short.”

After losing four key contributors from last year’s championship team, Jessen got a great effort all year long from this new group. The T-Birds lost just six games all season long, three of which came to this same Panguitch team.

“I’m happy with my guys. They never quit, all year long,” Jessen said. “Our kids played the way we expected to play, the way they’ve played all year. We just came up short with it. That resiliency is there. The kids gave it their all.”

Piute reached the state title game with wins over Water Canyon, Valley, and Wendover the first three days of the tournament.