When Mackenzie Dunham walked onto the floor for the start of the third quarter, she knew Sunrise Mountain’s championship hopes hinged on her. Only they didn’t hinge on her shot-making or rebounding or defense. They hinged, instead, on her ability to not foul.
That’s an uncomfortable place for any high schooler to be, much less one as dependent on strength and aggression as Dunham. Her 5A-best 13.3 rebounds per game, after all, don’t come by accident.
But in Friday night’s 5A championship game against Canyon View, Dunham delivered. After picking up three fouls in the first five minutes of the game, she avoided a fourth until deep into the fourth quarter. The critical fifth whistle never came. What did come, for Dunham and Sunrise Mountain, was a first state championship in school history, on the back of a 52-47 win that served as redemption for a senior class that began their careers with a loss on this very stage.
“That’s something that they’ll always be able to take pride in when they come back and visit,” Sunrise Mountain coach Jennifer tolle said. “There’ll be a banner up in the gym and they’ll have a lot of memories attached to it. So I’m really proud of them.”
Early on, as Dunham provided a jarring reflection of her value to Sunrise Mountain, that title looked as if it would come easy. In the first five minutes, she bullied Canyon View possession after possession. By the three-minute mark of the first quarter, she had seven points and six of her eventual 20 rebounds, helping Sunrise Mountain to a 13-4 lead.
“She has a knack for, as someone’s shooting, seeing the trajectory of the ball,” Tolle said. “I think really great rebounders, it’s not just height, it’s not just the physical aspect, but it’s the ability to kind of anticipate the ball as it comes off the rim and she’s so good at that.”
Nothing about the proceedings suggested Canyon View had much more than a distant prayer, even though the Jaguars had entered with the No. 1 seed to Sunrise Mountain’s No. 3 seed.
Then, with Dunham’s third foul, everything changed. For the rest of the quarter, she sat on the bench, only watching as Canyon View worked its way to a 28-23 lead. Not only did Sunrise Mountain miss Dunham’s dominant offensive presence, but Canyon View was able to get to the rim at will. The Jaguars’ leading scorer on the night, freshman Aaliyah Rogers, scored 12 of her 14 points in the quarter.
But if Canyon View had forgotten about Dunham’s dominance, it didn’t take long to be re-acquainted. On the first possession of the second half, Sunrise Mountain’s star senior forced her way to an offensive rebound, earned a trip to the free throw line and got the Mustangs on the board.
The question was only how long she could stay on the floor. During Dunham’s spell on the bench, Sunrise Mountain coach Jennifer Tolle had instructed her to stay vertical. This time, Dunham abided. The key, she said later, was “thinking about sitting on the bench” and reliving that frustration.
Instead, Dunham produced frustration only for Canyon View. In the second half alone, she had six points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Not only that, but her mere presence opened up looks for teammates.
“She’s just a problem for other teams because she’s so big, she’s such a skilled player, she’s a good passer,” Tolle said. “So she creates opportunities by drawing the defense, but she’s also great about finding her teammates and that makes her even more of a threat around the basket.”
That was most evident in the third quarter. Sunrise Mountain’s leading scorer, Mackenzie Nielsen, had struggled throughout the first half. But with Dunham back on the floor, Nielsen found the space to hit a pair of clutch threes, re-establishing the Mustangs’ lead.
“When you can just know that she can shoot the ball, you can just pass and have relief when it goes through the hoop,” Dunham said. “It really helps when she can make those threes.”
That set the stage for a fourth quarter battle, with the score deadlocked at 38 after three.
Even with 35 seconds left, the game remained in the balance. That’s when Dunham spun inside, put up a layup and saw it clang off the front of the rim. With Sunrise Mountain clinging to a 48-45 lead, Canyon View, would have, under normal circumstances, had a shot to tie.
These, though, weren’t normal circumstances. Not with Dunham on the floor. She grabbed her 12th and final offensive rebound, missed the putback, then drew three defenders as Abby Leahy picked up the ensuing loose ball. When Leahy missed both, it was Dunham who pressured Canyon View’s Avery Spickler, forcing Spickler to lose the ball out of bounds. After a missed Sunrise Mountain three, Dunham tipped yet another rebound out, again to Leahy.
This time, the ball found its way to Reena Bhakta, who knocked down both free throws. This time, Sunrise Mountain was state champions.
“This is the best feeling in the world,” Nielsen said. “It’s crazy to set a goal and accomplish it. And it’s a full circle moment. I couldn’t ask for anything better to finish my senior year.”