TAYLORSVILLE—From the moment senior Conner Christiansen slammed in a dunk in the fourth quarter, everyone knew.
Call it a comeback. Call it a prolonged hat trick. Call it Shakespear’s third act. It’s all the same. The Manti Templars are champions once more.
The Manti boys’ basketball team rallied to beat Richfield, 60-54, and captured the 3A Boys’ State Championship in dramatic fashion last Saturday, marking their third state championship in six seasons. It is also their second 3A championship in three years as a 3A school.
“It’s unbelievable,” Coach Devin Shakespear said. “I’m so proud of these guys and what they’ve done, their toughness and attitude. They’re just the best kids in the world.”
The Templars beat Grantsville, 67-54, in the quarterfinal on Thursday, and then rallied to beat Judge Memorial, 65-55, in the semifinal on Friday.
After a night’s rest and a day’s practice, Manti faced the Richfield Wildcats for all the marbles.
Richfield made their statement early as they opened with a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game, and they didn’t slow down there. The Wildcats sported an early 9-2 lead and frustrated Manti’s offense with an unexpected and airtight zone defense.
Richfield’s early lead fueled the fire of a tenacious and, at times, vitriolic, Wildcat student section, keeping quiet a Manti section roughly double its size.
Blauer sank a 3-pointer in isolation to get Manti back into it, but Richfield pulled away again, sporting a 17-9 lead at the end of the first quarter as the Templars saw some of their shots miss in ugly fashion.
Things weren’t going much better for the Templars in the second quarter. After three and a half minutes, Richfield extended their lead to double digits, 22-11. Grady Thompson hit a 3-pointer from a Blauer assist to stop the bleeding.
With the Wildcats ahead, 25-16, Thompson came alive again, going on a personal 5-0 run capped by a bucket and free throw.
Richfield had the final dagger in the first half as the Wildcats’ Morgan Albrecht weaved through the whole Manti defense for a layup to make it 27-21 at the half.
Halftime entertainment came with some unplanned festivities as both student sections took turns expressing their love, or lack thereof, for each other. Following a display of the Richfield fight song, the Richfield crowd went on the offensive with a chant of, “We can’t hear you!” to the predominantly quiet Manti crowd.
Manti’s students responded with “Let’s play football!” an ode to the Templars gridiron victory over the Wildcats last fall.
After the break, the name of the game was fouls as both teams worked very hard to draw contact on each other.
The Templars scored on their first two possession with a score and subsequent assist by Blauer to Travis Thomson, but the Wildcats kept scoring.
Manti stayed tenacious, and junior Trace Boggess made the putback shot to give Manti their first lead of the game, 36-34, with just under two minutes to go in the third.
Manti’s first lead lasted about 15 seconds as Richfield immediately buried a 3-pointer in response to take back the lead.
The final two minutes saw four lead changes as the two squads traded baskets to the end of the quarter. Blauer dribbled out the last 20 seconds to take the final shot to taunts of “boring, boring!” by the Richfield faithful.
Both teams started the fourth quarter in the bonus, leading to a combined 13 made free throws and zero field goals in the first three minutes of the period. The lead also changed seven times.
With five minutes remaining, Christiansen headed to the stripe for two shots and missed the second, but the senior wowed the bench by catching his own rebound off the free throw and dishing it to Travis Thomson for the go-ahead layup and the foul, giving Manti a 3-point lead.
After Richfield scored another free throw, Clark set the Manti crowd ablaze by sinking a 3 and giving Manti their first two-possession lead of the game, 51-46.
If spectators weren’t sure how much rowdier the Manti faithful could get, they were seconds from finding out.
Coming out of a Richfield timeout, Christiansen jumped an outlet pass and streaked down the court with a clear path. Playing his final minutes in a Manti jersey, the senior took flight and, with both hands, slammed it home for a 7-point Templar lead, howling at the crowd on his way back on defense.
“To be able to do that for Manti and the community,” Christiansen said, “it just means so much to me.”
Despite every drop of momentum being in Manti’s fuel tank, the Wildcats began to mount a comeback as Albrecht immediately responded with and layup and the foul, but he missed the free throw, and it initiated a 7-1 run to get Richfield within 1-point within a minute remaining.
Off a missed Wildcat layup, Travis Thomson drew a blocking foul and sank two more free throws to effectively put the game on ice.
Game. Season. Championship.
The Manti student section had turned back to the Richfield crowd with a familiar chord. “We can’t hear you!”
“I think we just knew that if we played our best, no one would beat us,” Grady Thompson said. “We were a little worried, but we knew if we played our best, they hadn’t seen our best yet.”
Travis Thomson led with a game-high 19 points, while Grady Thompson followed up with 18 points and nine rebounds.
“Stay the course, stay the course, stay the course,” Shakespear said of this team’s strength. “This is the best defensive team I’ve had, and they just know how to get stops when it’s important.”
The Templars finished with their best season of the 2000’s with a 25-1 record and both the Region 14 and 3A state titles. “It leaves an expectation,” Shakespear said. “They set a standard that is unbelievable, a standard of hard work, brotherhood, and just a wonderful group of boys.”
Manti’s lineup featured six seniors this year, four of whom were starters.
In the games leading up to the finale, Manti first took on the Grantsville Cowboys in the quarterfinals.
Manti got a solid lead on Grantsville from the beginning, a luxury the Templars would not have again, as they went ahead 17-11 in the first quarter and led by 12 at halftime.
All five starters scored in double digits against the Cowboys. Senior Kevin Clark led with 16 points, while Christiansen and junior Grady Thompson each scored 12 points. Senior Jordan Blauer scored 11 points, and senior Travis Thomson put in another 10.
The next day, Manti took on the Region 13 champion, Judge Memorial. Things looked good for Manti to start as they hit two 3-pointers to start, but Judge’s long-armed forwards took advantage in the post, scoring with consistency.
After Manti got out to an 8-4 lead, Judge clamped down on defense and created multiple turnovers to go on a 12-2 run over the final four minutes of the first quarter. Manti struggled with the tremendous size and length of the Bulldogs, and Judge Memorial got out to a 28-21 lead at halftime.
A quick basket from the Bulldogs’ Deng Mayar in the first possession of the third quarter gave Judge a 30-21 lead.
Then Manti awoke with a fury.
After a quick score from Judge, the Templars went on a 7-0 run, prompting a timeout by Judge Memorial as Shakespear hollered with enthusiasm.
Over the course of the second half, Manti leaned into the in-your-face defense of the Bulldogs and got the whistles they were looking for all game. The Templars were in the bonus by the start of the fourth quarter.
The Templars tied Judge twice in the third, but could not get a lead as the Bulldogs answered back each time.
Judge hit two 3-pointers to end the third quarter.
To begin the fourth, Manti went on a run again, 7-1, to tie the game, but Judge again answered back with an immediate score. Manti didn’t go away this time, going on another 6-2 run for the lead.
They kept that lead all the way to the end.
A chippy and emotional game showed its tension when Judge Memorial’s coach earned a technical foul and two different Judge players fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“I thought our guys did an excellent job of staying mentally in it,” Shakespear said. “Not overthinking it was really key.”
Blauer had a monster night to run up 24 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Clark backed him up with 20 points of his own.
“I was most proud of myself on defense,” Blauer said. “Defense wins games, as our coach says.”