NAMPA – Defending state champion Fruitland hadn’t lost to a 3A team all season and the Grizzlies featured an experienced lineup that had performed well under the pressure of postseason basketball.
So Sugar-Salem’s game plan for Saturday’s 3A championship matchup was simple.
“They never faced a team as physical on defense as we are,” Digger guard Gerohm Rihari said Saturday at the Ford Idaho Center after celebrating Sugar-Salem’s 57-47 win over Fruitland for the program’s sixth state title and second in the past three seasons.
The Diggers led early despite being outrebounded by a bigger Grizzlies team, but managed to hold the lead and eventually put the game away in the fourth quarter by hitting free throws.
With the win, Sugar-Salem became the second Idaho school ever to sweep winter sports state titles in the same school year. Meridian did so in 1983. The Diggers won 3A girls basketball and wrestling state titles last month and have stretched their state title count to six for the 2018-19 school year.
While it’s not exactly a rivalry between Digger teams, Freeman noted the spirit of competition runs deep in the program.
“It’s an honor to be part of that group,” he said.
As for Saturday’s game, taking a physical approach proved the right strategy. Fruitland shot just 22 percent in the first half, but kept the game close by hitting 7 of 10 free throws and dominating the boards. The Grizzlies pulled in 12 offensive rebounds in the half, keeping Sugar-Salem from finding any momentum on the offensive end. Even so, the Diggers held a precarious 20-18 lead at the half and extended it to 38-31 at the end of three quarters after Rihari knocked down a 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
The two teams also have recent history after Fruitland defeated Sugar-Salem in the opening round of the tournament last season on the way to the state title. The Diggers last year’s consolation title, but were looking for more this year after winning 11 of 13 games entering Saturday’s matchup.
“We believed in ourselves and knew what we could do,” Freeman said.
The Diggers eventually built their lead to 50-38 in the fourth quarter as Fruitland started fouling to send Sugar-Salem to the free-throw line. The Diggers scored 15 of their 19 fourth-quarter points from the line.
Rihari, who was sick earlier in the day, led Sugar-Salem with 12 points, but it was a balanced effort that eventually led to the victory. Nine different players scored for the Diggers and 10 recorded rebounds. Kyler Handy finished with 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds.