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Cedar City • Before they took Class 2A basketball by storm, long before they finished the year 25-1 and won the state championship, the Wasatch Academy Tigers were just another team working relentlessly for a shot at competing for a title.
But these Tigers are different. These players didn't grow up in the same neighborhood and they certainly didn't play basketball together from middle school on up.
This group stretches from across the globe.
And while the talent pool on this year's team was as deep as ever, meshing a group of kids and cultures and backgrounds and making them winners is a tough job.
"When you play basketball," said Insa Kaba, a senior from France, "it doesn't matter what language you speak."
A fitting summary for these Wasatch Academy Tigers, this year's 2A state champions after their 57-45 victory over region rival Gunnison Valley on Saturday evening at Centrum Arena.
"From Day 1," said Wasatch Academy coach Geno Morgan, "we practiced like we were champions."
The Tigers earned their stripes.
Headlined by sophomore Cody John (19 points) and freshman Koby McEwen (13 points), two of the team's dynamic scorers, the Tigers pushed their way past a gritty Bulldogs team in a championship closer than the final score indicates.
Each time Gunnison made a timely run to slice into the Wasatch Academy lead, it was a senior from Mali who stepped up when it mattered most. Momo Diop, who has been at the school since he was 14, single-handedly quelled every Bulldog run with crucial 3-point baskets.
"It's an indescribable feeling," he said. "I can be happy never picking up a basketball again."
Morgan said seeing his senior leader come up huge on the biggest stage of his ending career was something he'd never forget.
"I've watched him grow into a man," he said. "He's one of the smartest kids I know. I'm proud to be his coach."
The Tigers should be proud. They shut down Gunnison star Colby Caldwell (1 of 8 shooting) a night after keeping South Sevier star Race Parsons in check. Wasatch Academy held the Bulldogs to 37 percent shooting from the field in another impressive defensive outing deep in the playoffs.
"We did everything we had to do to win," Kaba said, still catching his breath as his teammates cut down the net.
With nations from all over the world and states across the country represented on this year's Wasatch Academy title team, senior captain Garrett Crosby is a Mount Pleasant kid.
He said the sacrifices and adjustments made by his team throughout the season, through those endless practices and minutes on the court, was what put his Tigers over the top.
"We had to learn each other's cultures, respect each other's religions and just become a family," he said, "and we did that."
Wasatch Acad. 57, Gunnison 45
R The Tigers' defense holds Gunnison to 37 percent shooting.