SALT LAKE CITY — After guiding the Orem High boys basketball team to the 4A state championship in 2012, head coach Golden Holt saw his team falter in the first round of last year’s state tournament.
More toughness, he said, was the culprit in the Tigers’ early postseason exit in 2013. So he toughened up their preseason schedule considerably this season — and it worked.
With Friday’s 61-46 semifinal victory over Springville, they’re back in the 4A state title game today, when they’ll face Bountiful for the top prize.
Coach Holt is convinced that toughening up the schedule, in turn, paid dividends by toughening up his team and paving the way for this season’s strong showing.
“After last year’s loss to Logan, just grinding on that all summer, I just felt like I could do a better job of bringing toughness to this team,” he said. “So I put together the schedule and the plan, and we took our lumps.
“… We played the second-ranked team in Arizona, the first-ranked team in Utah, the first-ranked team in Colorado; we played a very good schedule, and if you looked at my notes, you’d know that I planned on being here tomorrow (for the 4A finals).
“And I think that schedule paid off because now we’ve won 10 or 11 in a row,” he said. “We needed that toughness, and so I’m really happy for the boys that they kinda survived the schedule.”
Another key in the Tigers’ success has been the play of 6-foot-9 junior center Richard Harward, who came on strong halfway through the season was 7 of 10 from the field on Friday on his way to 15 points. He also pulled down nine rebounds in the semifinal win.
“Richard broke his collarbone in the summer, so he didn’t have any summer to play and he shows up in mid-October,” coach Holt said. “He was heavy and we had a rigorous schedule, and I should have been on him more with his weight.
“But it wasn’t until mid-January and I said, ‘Richard, come on.’ We were at a team party and I said, ‘Get the scale out here, how much do you weigh?’ because I was curious. And he went on that and he looked down and he said ‘Oh, (bleep).’ I think we should patent that (saying) for a weight scale. … He was 271 pounds and that was midway through the season.
“We had five weeks left in the season, so Richard and I have been at the gym every morning at 6 o’clock,” Holt said. “He runs, runs, runs, shoots free throws, runs, runs, runs, shoots free throws because he needed to work on both of those things. And he’s lost 25 pounds in five weeks. So that’s a Jenny Craig commercial.
“But if you saw him early in the year, he was a non-factor. He couldn’t get up and down the floor. … But he’s now a weapon because he’s long enough and active enough with that 25 pounds off that he’s gonna be a really good player.”
The Tigers got double-digit scoring performances from Harward, Quin Peters and Cooper Holt in Friday’s victory, and Dalton Nixon and Ethan Chatterly also played vital roles in the victory that vaulted them into Saturday’s title game.
“I give credit to both Richard and Ethan because, honestly, for six weeks it was three against five because Ethan Chatterly did not have his confidence and now he does,” the Orem coach said. “He’s playing gritty defense for a little guy and he had seven rebounds today digging ’em out. And Richard now with that weight loss is a real weapon at 6-9. So now it’s five on five, and those five kids are pretty good out there.”
Coach Holt said his inside-oriented team wins because they pound the ball into the paint and don’t settle for outside jump shots.
“It’s interesting, because I enjoyed watching the 5A games yesterday,” he said. “But man, I’m like I’d be going nuts if I was coaching those teams because they’re so free in hucking up the shots, and that’s their games and styles. But that’s not us. We’re an inside-out team.
“If you look at the stats, we shot 24 free throws and (Springville) shot 7. That’s not by accident. That’s not uneven officiating. That’s us not settling and going inside, and I think that’s how you win championships.”
Coach Holt also said he has great admiration for guys like longtime Provo High head coach Craig Drury and his Davis High counterpart, Jay Welk, whose team played in Friday night’s 5A semifinals.
“These high school teachers who coach, I have so much respect for them — the coach Drurys, the coach Welks — that have done it for 25 years,” he said. “Are you kidding me? Those guys are like the ultimate scoutmasters and they deserve a big pat on the back.
“I’m an independent guy, and no way could I do it for 25 years,” he said. “My son (Cooper) being involved and being with most of these Orem boys for the last four years, it’s been a real treat for me. It’s why I coach.”