OGDEN, Utah –
When a team wins its third straight state title, the celebration can sometimes seem muted – especially compared to the first.
But nothing was held in reserve for the Lone Peak (Highland)
Knights after a 72-39 defeat of Alta (Sandy)
for the Utah Class 5A boys basketball crown on Saturday.
Seniors Eric Mika
and Nick Emery
rushed headlong into the jubilant Lone Peak student section to celebrate the end of what will likely be a national championship season for the Knights (look for MaxPreps to make it official later this month). Head coach Quincy Lewis asserted that he believed his team was the best in the country over the public address system.
"It feels pretty unreal. Our original goal was to win state and to prove how we could hang with anyone," said Mika, who finished with 16 points and 18 rebounds in the final. "We won those national games and got us to No. 1. So we thought, 'Why not? Let's go for the national championship.'"
Ranked No. 6 in MaxPreps.com's preseason Xcellent 25, Lone Peak (26-1) earned its national stripes by beating highly-regarded teams outside of Utah.
"We were very fortunate," Lewis said. "Our district allowed us to (travel) more than we might normally be able to because they realized that this was a special situation. That's why we scheduled the way we did. We didn't broadcast it, but we said our goal at the beginning of the season was to win a national championship."
Lone Peak's travels this season included voyages to Massachusetts for the nation's top showcase in the Spalding Hoophall Classic and Florida for the country's premier tournament – the City of Palms Classic. There was also an early trip to Chicago and a January appearance in Wisconsin for the Brandon Jennings Invitational. In all, the schedule featured opponents from 10 different states.
For the Knights to successfully conclude their dream season, one more win against a Utah team was required.
Alta (15-9) was initially able to slow down Lone Peak's preferred method of play – an up-tempo transition attack that often culminates in slam dunks or easy layups.
To the Hawks' credit, they didn't have to employ a ball-on-hip delay that Brighton (Salt Lake City) tried the day before in the semifinals. In that game Friday, Lone Peak cruised with 53-27 victory despite both teams, and the crowd, enduring a completely scoreless second quarter.
On Saturday, Lone Peak led 13-11 when Mika scored a bucket and Talon Shumway
hit a pair of free throws before the end of the first quarter for a six-point advantage. Getting points from Connor Toolson
and Mika, the Knights gradually extended the lead to take a 32-16 advantage into the half.
Shumway finished with 16 points while Emery and T.J. Haws
added 13 and 11 points, respectively.
By the end of the third period, the Lone Peak running game was in full gear. An Emery-to-Haws-to-Mika sequence that ended with a dunk gave the Knights a 57-30 lead with 1:40 remaining in the quarter and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"We just came out and played our game every single game," said Haws, the only junior in Lone Peak's starting lineup.
Emery and Mika have pledged to continue their careers at nearby Brigham Young University while Shumway will also go to BYU to play football. Haws is also committed to the Cougars, though he can't make it official for eight months.
Since most of the team's players are followers of the Mormon faith, missions are part of the post-high school equation that the top recruits must factor in. Emery will graduate early and head out for a mission May 1.
"I'm going to take a couple of weeks off, go on my mission and then come back and play for BYU," Emery said. "I've certainly learned a lot of life lessons this year and now I'm going to learn some more of them."
The bulk of Lone Peak's squad has known each other since elementary school in the same district. Over the past three seasons, that familiarity has resulted in a 72-5 record and three state crowns. The Knights won every game against in-state competition this winter by at least 19 points.
Oh, and there was that national championship thing, too.
"I think they're starting to respect us more. They don't underestimate us, that's for sure," Mika said of the nation's perspective on the Knights.
The week leading up to the championship game included national coverage from multiple media outlets. The Lone Peak players tried to keep it at a distance.
"I don't think any of us quite expected the media to get out-of-hand like it did, with the New York Times and the Today show," Mika said. "We tried to block it out, but it's pretty cool."