Orem • Orem High School had established itself as the clear favorite after the first quarter. They had banished pretty much any doubt that they would advance to the state semifinals by halftime.
“Puka [Nacua] I think made his first eight shots,” Orem coach Golden Holt said. “And Puka can’t be guarded — whether he’ll make his shot or not is the question. So when he makes eight shots, good things are going to happen for us.”
The Tigers grabbed a 30-point lead in the first half en route to a 71-56 victory in Thursday’s Class 4A boys’ basketball state quarterfinal at Utah Valley University. They were lead by Nacua, who scored a game-high 27 points.
The Thunder struggled to contain Nacua from the beginning. He put up 19 points in the first half alone, going 3 of 3 from beyond the arc.
He turned to his bench to celebrate after each one, tilting his head back and letting out a yell. The Orem student section roared right back.
“They kept on playing off because people don’t think I can shoot,” Nacua said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to let a couple fly.’ They went in, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m feeling it now.’ And the other two went in, and then I was like, ‘OK, that’s enough. Everybody else can shoot the ball now.’”
Orem gave Desert Hills a 30-point deficit to make up after the first quarter, thanks to 19-0 run. The Tigers held the Thunder to just two field goals in the opening period. The key, Holt said, was their straight-man defense. And the Tigers have turned to a former Lone Peak High star and BYU standout for some help.
“Nick Emery’s come in and helped us coach, and Nick can play some defense,” Holt said. “And he really got the boys engaged in practice to take pride in who you’re guarding. So we’ve gotten a lot better about how to hedge and help, but then stay with the man in the matchups.”
The Thunder took away the 3-point shot for Nacua in the second half, but he still added eight more points. Ike Richards, who finished the night with 16 points, drained three field goals and four free throws in the second half.
Nakua’s dominant performance was déjà vu for any Desert Hills football fans who watched him score three touchdowns, two of which were on 90-plus yard plays, in the football state quarterfinals this past fall.
Orem is scheduled to take on Juan Diego in a state semifinal game hosted again by UVU at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
OREM 71, DESERT HILLS 56
• Orem advances to the state semifinals, where it will face Juan Diego.
• The Tigers’ Puka Nacua scores a game-high 27 points.
• Tucker Peterson logs a double double (18 points, 12 rebounds) for Desert Hills.