In a four-minute span of the fourth quarter Tuesday, Mountain Ridge's boys basketball matchup with rival Deer Valley shifted from a cakewalk to a gut check.
The Skyhawks scored 13 straight points in front of a screaming home crowd, tying the game at 46 on a rebound accidentally tipped in by a Mountain Ridge player with 2:43 left. The Mountain Lions called a time out.
"I just said, 'Hey, buckle down, this is our game. We need to play under control,'"; Mountain Ridge coach Craig Marcus said. "I think we did some poor things on offense, we can do a better job. Relax, play our game and we'll be fine."
After tensing up during Deer Valley's comeback, Mountain Ridge regained its composure, ran its offense and set up senior forward Kristofer Jackson, its best player on the night. Jackson calmly stroked a jumper from the elbow to restore the Mountain Lions' lead
"When the ball goes down in the post, the other post guy is supposed to flash to the high post, so that's what I did," Jackson said. "It felt really good. It's always good beating your rivals."
From there, Mountain Ridge (11-8, 7-1 Northwest Region) shut down Deer Valley (10-8, 5-3), including a block by Jackson, and hit six of eight free throws to secure a 54-46 victory.
The jumper and block capped Jackson's career-best night. He finished with a game-high 16 points and seven rebounds.
"Kristofer Jackson was huge tonight. A senior in his last game against Deer Valley — I couldn't ask for anything more," Marcus said.
Any frustration felt by the home team was tempered by their gritty late rally, fueled by full-court pressure defense and aggressive drives to the basket.
"I'm glad we made it a game, made it exciting. I guess," Deer Valley coach Jed Dunn said. "It's still disappointing."
The run began with a layup by sophomore guard Trey Ogles to cut Mountain Ridge's lead to 46-35. Sophomore guard Lawrence Pierce drove, was fouled and made both free throws. The Skyhawks forced a turnover that led to another Ogles layup.
Mountain Ridge called a timeout, but could not halt Deer Valley's momentum. Senior forward Ivan Ivic drilled a three-point shot with 4:52 left. A minute later, Pierce drove for a layup. Another minute passed before the tying tip-in.
"We don't run a lot of sets. We just try to get our kids going to the basket. Eventually something will happen," Deer Valley coach Jed Dunn said. " I'm proud of them. We sort of left here with the feeling we played a good game, because before that time they were kicking our tail."
Prior to the run, Mountain Ridge was in cruise control. The Mountain Lions broke out to a 12-2 lead in a little more than two minutes, and were up six at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter the visitors pushed their advantage to 13 points, but Deer Valley sophomore forward Austin Hillman responded with a trey. Mountain Ridge junior guard Taylor Pickle scored and Hillman came back again — this time with a 35-foot rainbow that swished through the net at the buzzer.
It was a hopeful end to a discouraging half for the Skyhawks.
"In the first half, we were standing around. We literally were four people standing watching the other one dribble," Dunn said. "We looked like a JV team, and that's what I said to them."
Mountain Ridge applied the brakes in the third quarter, allowing only six points. Deer Valley's drivers had trouble getting clean looks against the Mountain Lions' lanky frontcourt — Jackson (6-5), junior forward Jared Zoller (6-5) and senior forward Cameron Akins (6-6).
Though the matchup would have seemed ripe for Mountain Ridge to use a zone, the Mountain Lions stuck with a man-to-man defense for most of the night and the big guys proved adept at cutting off Deer Valley's guards.
"We worked on half-court defense a lot yesterday, just on keeping guys out of the paint — not letting them drive, we knew that was their strong suit.," Marcus said. "We wanted to keep them out, help a little if we needed to, but really just straight up I'm stopping you, and that's what my job is."
The trio took turns on the offensive end. Akins scored all seven of his points in the first half. Zoller pumped in nine of his 11 points in the second half.
Jackson was the most steady Mountain Lion throughout the night, but even he peaked with a eight point third quarter.
"It's hard to guard three 6-5 kids that can score," Jackson said. "We're all doing a really good job of getting opportunities and finishing."
Ogles led the Skyhawks with 11 points, while Pierce added 10.