Bulldog season comes to close after two thrilling playoff games

Tiffanie Jackson // Gazette Photo
Finishing through contact, sophomore guard Jon Willden converts a tough shot off a spin move as part of a second-half offensive push that helped the Bulldogs earn a spot in a playoff game in Richfield.

The past (and last) week of basketball for the Gunnison Valley boys team had exhilarating highs, disappointing lows, highlight moments and regrettable errors.

In the end, the late-season surge by the Bulldogs came up one point shy of overcoming top-seeded Beaver. The game went to overtime, and Beaver took control of the game to survive and advance.

“The kids were pretty disappointed,” Coach Ben Hill said. “They had put in the necessary time and prepared themselves. We had the opportunity, and we were just one basket short.”

On Friday, the 9-seed Bulldogs defeated 8-seed Kanab, 55-52, in a fourth-quarter comeback to move on to the 2A state quarterfinal in Richfield. On Monday, they lost in overtime to the top-seeded Beaver Beavers, 41-50, ending a late-season run that often showed promise to take the team deep.

Kanab had reasons to be confident going into the play-in game against Gunnison Valley. The Cowboys had the home-court advantage, and they won the teams’ last matchup on Dec. 16, also in Kanab.

Unfortunately for Kanab, Gunnison Valley proved to be a vengeful team in the weeks leading up to the playoffs. They defeated three regional rivals that had won their first matchups: Monticello, Duchesne and North Summit.

“We peaked at the right time,” Hill said of the team’s performance in the weeks leading up to the playoffs.

When they met on Friday, Gunnison Valley and Kanab played like evenly matched teams. The momentum and leads changed frequently, and both teams’ scorers and defenses played all of their minutes with visible passion.

Gunnison Valley took a one-point lead in the first quarter, but Kanab went up 24-20 to go into halftime. 

Both teams controlled the tempo at times in the third quarter, but a turning point came when senior Janzen Keisel converted a tough layup with a foul to begin the fourth. Keisel led the team with 17 points, largely off of athletic play in the post.

The quarter continued with the Bulldogs playing tight defense and moving the ball well, but they also committed multiple sloppy turnovers. 

Kanab stayed well within striking distance until its final possession.

The Cowboys played tight defense late, which sometimes thwarted the Bulldog offense but also sent the resilient Bulldogs to the free-throw line often in the fourth quarter. With 30 seconds remaining, Kanab senior Derek Thompson made the score 53-52, but this was the closest the Cowboys ultimately came to touching the Bulldog lead.

Gunnison Valley held onto the lead to play in the quarterfinal.

Seniors Harley Hill and Creed Mogle had 14 and 12 points respectively. Sophomore Jon Willden had 10.

After taking a week to prepare for the Cowboys, the team had to play the team ranked No. 1 in 2A after three days’ break.

Tiffanie Jackson // Gazette Photo
Junior guard Jack Hansen puts the ball in over a Beaver forward after catching a series of passes that started with senior guard Creed Mogle (1), watching from beyond the arc.

Beaver was the more efficient team in the first quarter. They scored 15 points on 75 percent 2-point shooting, compared to Gunnison Valley’s nine points on 38 percent 2-point shooting.

But the Bulldogs fought back in the second and went into halftime with an upswing in momentum, evidenced by their spirited student section getting extra noisy after they stopped the Beavers from scoring on a minute-long possession.

The second half was low-scoring and all about defense. Beaver hit a 3-pointer to change a 1-point deficit to a 2-point lead at the end of the third, then scored some early baskets in the fourth and seemed poised to break away. 

But before they could end the game in four quarters, a figure who has made a reputation for scoring clutch baskets this year stepped up again for Gunnison Valley. It was Willden, whose driving layup on Jan. 7 put the team ahead to defeat Enterprise and who sank one of two needed 3-pointers in the final seconds of the loss to Monticello a week later, who sent the game to overtime. 

With 30 seconds remaining on Monday, Willden dribbled into space created at the top of the key by a hard screen from Hill and netted a 3-pointer to tie the game. The Bulldogs played smothering defense and deflected a pass into the backcourt to disrupt Beaver’s chance to finish the game in regulation and send the game to an extra period.

In overtime, however, Beaver took back control. Gunnison Valley was forced into some uncomfortable shots and missed other types that they often made this year to only score four points to Beaver’s 13 in extra time. Beaver shot 12 free throws in overtime.

“We didn’t win the big games and the tournament, but at the end things kind of clicked together. That’s the reason why we play sports, just to feel that synergy when things just come together,” Hill said.

The Bulldogs lost their consolation game yesterday against 5-seed North Summit, 43-49. The Braves lost to 4-seed Enterprise in Richfield on Monday before the Gunnison Valley game.