Monument Valley girls basketball team state title hopes dashed by eventual champions

When the Monument Valley High School girls basketball players went to sleep on Wednesday, February 26, it wasn’t sugarplums dancing in their heads. They were dreaming of their first-ever state championship trophy.
It wasn’t a far-fetched dream. The Lady Cougars had put together an impressive 18-5 regular season record and had been improving and bonding as a team all season.
They entered the 1A Utah High School Activities Association State Basketball Championships as the number three seed in the state.
They skipped through the first round with a bye and breezed through their second-round game against Pinnacle 46-19 on Wednesday at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield.
Everything was in place for Monument Valley to make their deepest run ever in the state tournament. What they didn’t know was that the Milford Lady Tigers were waiting in the shadows to take everyone in 1A girls basketball by surprise.
When the Lady Cougars faced Milford in the quarterfinals on Thursday, February 27, it was a battle between the #3 and #6 teams in the state. It was guaranteed to be an exciting, hard-fought battle, and it didn’t disappoint.
From the start the teams traded the lead, and that continued all the way until midway into the fourth quarter. Monument Valley managed to build a four-point lead in the first quarter, but Milford pulled to within two at the buzzer.
The Lady Tigers rallied in the second quarter to take a 21-20 lead over the Lady Cougars into the halftime break.
The battle continued in the third period, with Monument Valley reestablishing a tenuous 33-32 lead headed into the final quarter.
The Lady Cougars scored the opening basket of the frame, but from that point Milford began a 10-2 run that gave the Lady Tigers their first legitimate lead of the game, 42-37.
The Monument Valley girls played their hearts out, battling to within one, 44-43, with 2:32 left in the game.
But over the course of the next minute Milford once again snatched the momentum and scored four straight to go up 48-43 with just 1:30 to play.
Monument Valley rallied to within three one final time, but simply ran out of time as the Lady Tigers held off the Lady Cougars for a 49-46 upset.
From the floor, the game was very even; Monument Valley shot 18 of 48 for 38 percent while Milford hit 17 of their 44 attempts for 39 percent.
The only real disparity for the Lady Cougars was at the line. The girls hit just nine of their 20 free throw attempts (45 percent); Milford was 13 of 18 for 72 percent.
It should be pointed out that after their win over Monument Valley, Milford went on to beat #10 Panguitch (who upset Whitehorse) and #1 Rich for their first-ever state title.
When the dust settled, it was the Lady Cougars who had given the Lady Tigers their closest game in the tournament.
Monument Valley Assistant Coach Doug Freed said when the game with Milford was over, the Lady Cougars were spent and sore. They had left it all on the court, made their coaches and fans proud, and had every reason in the world to hold their heads high.
Though the possibility of a state title was gone, Monument Valley’s tournament was only half over. When Whitehorse also suffered a very close upset loss in the quarterfinals, a third and final matchup between the two south San Juan County rivals was set.
The familiar foes tipped it off Thursday, February 28 in the fifth place semifinals with Monument Valley looking to put an exclamation point on their previous two Battle of the Drum wins over Whitehorse.
The game was never close. The Lady Cougars opened a 16-4 lead in the first quarter, increased it to 35-12 at the half, and dominated the Lady Raiders 58-35.
So for the second year in a row Monument Valley was set to play for fifth place. In the 2019 tournament the girls suffered a heartbreaking 64-63 loss to Wayne.
This year they faced Valley, whom they split regular season matchups with and who entered the tournament ranked number 4.
Early on, it looked good for the Lady Cougars when they built a 15-8 first-quarter lead. But the Lady Buffalos rallied throughout the second quarter to cut the deficit to 30-28 at the half.
Valley maintained their momentum in the second half, outscoring Monument Valley 35-23 on the way to a 63-53 win, relegating the Lady Cougars to seventh place for the second straight year.
Like she did all season, senior Jamika Nelson led the Lady Cougars at the state tournament with 77 points, averaging almost 20 per game. Senior Tanisha Cowboy scored 37 points in the four games in Richfield.
Alyah Blackwater and Raemi Nez concluded their amazing freshman year with 35 and 32 points at the tourney respectively. Christel Tsosie scored eight for the Lady Cougars, Tamika Slim got six, Chalyisha Tsosie added four, and Aliya Bedonie and Lakenya Begaye got two apiece.
For the season, Nelson scored 557 points for the Lady Cougars, Cowboy got 339, Nez tallied 270, Blackwater added 240, and Christel Tsosie had 77.
Reflecting on the year, Coach Freed explained that all the Monument Valley players, freshman to senior, improved as the year went along, which is what coaches want to see.
“We played a lot of really good teams, we showed some toughness when we had to, and we won a lot of close games,” he stated.
Head Coach Terri James has built an impressive program in her first four years, collecting 68 wins while losing 30 games. She led the Lady Cougars to a fourth place finish in the state in 2018, followed by back-to-back seventh place results in the last two seasons.
Freed said it’s part of a good basketball culture that now exists at Monument Valley High School. Just like the previous years under Coach James, the 2019-20 team was “very tight-knit,” stated Freed. “They hung around with each other, they had a great time together, and that was part of their secret.”
It’s no secret that the team was better because of senior scoring leader Jamika Nelson also. “She’s a special player,” said Freed. “There’s not another player in 1A like her; someone like that just doesn’t come around very often.”
Freed explained that coaches and teammates will miss Nelson on the court and off, but he and Coach James believe she will have an opportunity to play at the next level, though no further details are available yet.
With several strong, young players stepping up to replace graduating seniors, the Monument Valley girls basketball program is without a doubt headed in a positive direction. Congratulations to all the players and coaches on an excellent 2019-2020 season.
Boys basketball
The Monument Valley boys basketball team ended the season ranked 13th in the state. Their 74-59 play-in win over Diamond Ranch on February 22 earned them a spot in the second round of the state tournament where they would face the #4 Wendover Wildcats on Wednesday, February 26 at Richfield High School.
The Cougars kept the game close early on, but Wendover steadily built a lead, 19-15 after one quarter, 34-28 at the half, and 54-45 after three. The Wildcats then dominated the final frame to send Monument Valley into consolation play 76-57.
The Cougars bounced back in the sixth place quarterfinals against #12 Mount Vernon Thursday, February 27. Though they trailed 18-17 after one quarter, Monument Valley dominated the remaining three to take down the Patriots 49-30.
The win put the Cougars in the sixth place semifinals where they would face Region 19 foe Green River for the third time this year. 
The Pirates had swept the previous two games against Monument Valley, and they wasted no time on Friday, February 28 jumping out to a 21-13 lead on the Cougars after one quarter.
Monument Valley stayed in the hunt, though, and battled to within seven points headed into the fourth quarter. They were within four points a couple times in the final frame, but Green River seized the momentum late and ended the Cougars’ season 68-53.
Junior Henry Wilson was the leading scorer for Monument Valley at the tournament with 43 points in three games. Sophomore Seth Sheppard tallied 40, senior Dekyio June got 34, and senior Sonny Hudson scored 18.
Senior Devon Slim added 15 points in the three state tourney games for the Cougars. Freshman Doreon Chee and junior Mekhi Tallis scored three apiece.
June and Slim were the best long range shooters for Monument Valley in Richfield with five three-pointers apiece. Wilson, Hudson, and Tallis all got one apiece.
The Cougars picked up eight wins this season, their most in a couple years and their most under second-year head coach Merrill Smith. Congratulations to all the coaches and players on a great year.

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