Neither Parma nor Fruitland won the District Three boys basketball title this season, but Saturday afternoon at the Ford Idaho Center, the Panthers and Grizzlies will battle for the 3A state championship.
Friday night at Meridian High, Parma (15-11) used a full house to trump Buhl’s pair of aces in a stunning semifinal upset, while Fruitland (17-11) used a dominant second-quarter run to put away South Fremont and set up an all-District Three final.
Parma is seeking the first state championship in program history, while Fruitland has won three titles in the past eight seasons, most recently in 2012. The two Snake River Valley Conference rivals played twice during the regular season, with Fruitland winning both meetings. They’ll square off one last time at 3:50 p.m. Saturday.
PARMA 67, BUHL 49
Buhl came in as a heavy favorite with only two losses all season and a pair of standout seniors in point guard Hayden Eckert and 6-foot-6 big man Michael Lively. None of that mattered to a fearless Parma squad. The Panthers survived an early barrage, built a slim halftime lead and poured it on from there.
Senior guard Tanner Kramer racked up 23 points and six assists for Parma, while senior post Colten Merges added 19 points — including a perfect 11-for-11 night at the free throw line — and 15 rebounds for the Panthers.
“You never know what can happen at a tournament,” Merges said. “We were the underdog team, but we stuck together and we never lost faith.”
Kramer and Merges had plenty of help, with junior Payton Pinz chipping in nine points and nine rebounds, and freshman Jared Nielsen adding 11 points off the bench. That was more than enough to outduel Eckert and Lively, who scored 18 points apiece but both fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“We wanted to involve (Lively) in a lot of pick-and-rolls and give Tanner some chances to attack the rim,” said Parma coach Scot Garrick, whose team enjoyed a 30-to-4 advantage in free-throw attempts and shot 85 percent from the stripe. “We actually put in three new sets during morning shootaround, and the kids really bought in and kept attacking.”
Buhl (22-3) came out hot, with Eckert splashing four first-quarter 3-pointers. The Indians led 16-7 early, but Parma weathered the storm and closed the gap to 19-15 by the end of the quarter.
“The league we play in, we are used to getting hit in the mouth,” Garrick said. “We’ve been in that situation plenty of times, so our guys know how to stay the course and not panic.”
The Panthers found their rhythm in the second quarter, with Nielson nailing two big 3-pointers to help Parma take the lead.
The Panthers would never trail again. With Buhl battling foul trouble, the Panthers increased their lead to eight by the end of the third quarter and blew things open in the fourth, outscoring the Indians 23-13 in the final period.
“It felt so intense out there still, and then I looked up at the scoreboard and we were up 20 against Buhl in the state tournament,” Kramer said. “Crazy.”
Parma shot 36 percent from the floor, but the free throw disparity and a season-low nine turnovers helped swing the game in the Panthers’ favor. Now, Parma has a chance to earn its first state title — and a rare victory over Fruitland — all in one fell swoop.
“Earlier this year, we had a game with Fruitland that was a [mercy rule] running clock in the fourth quarter,” Garrick said. “So that’s how far these kids have come, and it’s really a credit to the seniors.”
FRUITLAND 62, SOUTH FREMONT 45
State tournament games aren’t typically decided in the second quarter, but that was the case as Fruitland overwhelmed defending state champion South Fremont with a devastating 20-4 blitz. Junior wing Wyatt Dennison led three Fruitland players in double figures with 14 points as the Grizzlies built a 29-12 halftime lead.
“I thought we defended well and stayed aggressive offensively,” Fruitland coach Mike Fitch said. “When we do those two things consistently, it’s a winning combination.”
Junior forward Tyler Eiguren added 13 points and seven rebounds, while senior guards Connor Benear and DaMetri Weatherall chipped in 10 and eight points, respectively. The balanced scoring and a tenacious defensive effort that held South Fremont to 26 percent shooting helped the Grizzlies build and sustain their comfortable lead.
“We’ve become a really tight-knit group,” Dennison said. “We’re really passionate with our defense, and we have a lot of confidence in our offense, so it’s working well for us right now.”
South Fremont (14-13) briefly made things interesting with a 12-3 run early in the fourth quarter, trimming the lead to single digits. But Fruitland regained its composure and restored a double-digit cushion, thanks largely to a late flurry by Benear.
“I was proud of our kids,” Fitch said. “When that lead gets down to nine, eyes can get big and knees can start knocking a little bit, but the guys turned things around. That’s hard for 16- and 17-year-old kids when a couple thousand people are watching your every move.”
Fruitland now looks to hang its fourth state championship banner in less than a decade — and a familiar foe stands in the Grizzlies’ way.
“Basketball is so much about momentum and getting hot at the right time,” Fitch said. “I think we’ve gathered a lot of momentum this week, and so has Parma.”
Dennison and his teammates are looking forward to battling their conference rivals one more time for the championship.
“It’s a good moment for the SRV,” he said. “We know they’re going to be a good matchup, and we’re excited to play against them.”