Bountiful • It was a quintessential Sam Merrill sequence, the kind of thing Bountiful fans have come to expect from their star junior guard.
It was early in the fourth, and the Braves were tied with Highland at 37-37. Sensing an opportunity to exploit the Rams' defense, Merrill thrashed his way to the hoop but took a beating and got fouled. The layup and the ensuing free throw both fell.
Merrill then got his hand on the Rams' inbound pass, snatched it away and lofted in another layup.
With that, Merrill plucked the game's decisive momentum shift for the Braves, who withstood a fierce attack from the Rams to snag the upper hand in Region 6 with a 57-43 victory Tuesday. It was Bountiful's 13th consecutive win.
"He just loves to win, and that's the bottom line," Bountiful coach Mike Maxwell said about Merrill. "He wants the ball in his hands. He wants to find a way to get to the basket or find a teammate. He'll do it with defense, too. He doesn't care."
After a back-and-forth first three quarters that had the Rams leading heading into the fourth quarter, the Braves dialed up their defensive effort. Bountiful, which played a physical brand of pressure defense, frustrated the Rams and forced numerous turnovers, which led to points on the offensive end for the Braves.
"Coach told us to pick up the defensive intensity, and that's what we did," Merrill said. "We started getting some steals, and we totally took the momentum to our side."
The Rams never had an answer for Merrill's penetration. The majority of his game-high 28 points came on drives to the basket, and he took only a few jumpers all game.
"We have shooters out there who can make shots, and [the defense has] to stay out there with them," Merrill said. "That gives me some lanes to get to the rim and shoot it or kick it out to shooters."
The effects of the Bountiful's win may ripple into the playoffs, and Region 6 is likely to come down to the Braves and Rams. Another matchup at Highland to close the regular season awaits, but the Braves were pleased to draw first blood.
"Going into the second round [of region play], this is a statement that teams are going to have to beat us," Merrill said. "We're not just going to lose to people."
Storylines Braves have upper hand in Region 6
R Sam Merrill's 28-point effort gives Bountiful the win.