OGDEN — Despite his young team, Alta coach Jim Barker came into the season whole-heartedly believing he had one of the best teams in 5A.
There were hiccups along the way, particularly early in the season, but when Alta takes the floor in Saturday’s 5A state championship against Lone Peak, it’s a game Barker believes his team was destined to play in.
Another gritty defensive effort is why Alta is back in the title game.
The Hawks frustrated American Fork throughout Friday’s semifinal at the Dee Events Center, holding the Cavemen to 29 percent shooting and forcing 13 turnovers on their way to the 38-31 victory.
In a game that was tight throughout, Alta closed on a 6-0 run to clinch its spot in the finals.
“I was asked before the game what type of game I thought it would be and I said low-scoring because both teams are defense first. The score didn’t surprise me. I didn’t think it would be that low, but it doesn’t’ surprise me,” said Barker, whose team held American Fork to just 10 second-half points after the game was tied 21-21 at the half.
“We’ve really come together at the end of the year defensively. We know tomorrow we’re going to have to score to stay in the game, but we’re looking forward to the opportunity,” added Barker.
As good as Alta was defensively, it certainly had its fair share of offensive struggles too, shooting 29 percent just like American Fork.
In the final three minutes though, Alta executed when it needed to.
After going four minutes without scoring early in the fourth, Trevor Hill extended Alta’s lead to 32-28 with 2:55 remaining on a driving lay-up and then knocking down 1-of-2 free throws a possession later.
Zach Rollins came up with arguably the biggest play of the game, though, with 25 seconds remaining after American Fork had trimmed the deficit to 32-31.
He dribbled and weaved his way through American Fork’s trapping defense near midcourt and then kicked the ball down low to a wide-open RJ Bear who converted the lay-up for his only points of the game.
American Fork missed a 3-pointer that could’ve tied the game with 15 seconds, and then Hill iced it with a pair of free throws to extend the lead to 36-31.
Barker believes the experience of playing tight games in the first two rounds against Bingham and Weber made a difference down the stretch.
“The way we won the last two games, I think it actually made our kids relax,” said Barker.
Hill finished with 11 points and eight rebounds, while Landon Albrecht and Carter Heslop were unsung heroes with outstanding defense on American Fork big men Tyler Rawson and Ryan Andrus. Even though the two combined for 26 of American Fork’s 31 points, nothing came easy.
Just as important was Alta’s perimeter defense as American Fork only made 1-of-14 3-pointers.
“If you don’t stop Andrus you’re in trouble, he’s their go-to guy,” said Barker. “My big thing is I didn’t want to give up shots to their shooters. If you focus too much on the guy down low, then they get open shots.”
When American Fork did miss, Alta rarely surrendered a second chance, only allowing four offensive rebounds and finishing with a 32-28 rebounding edge.
Albrecht led the way with nine rebounds, with Heslop adding six. Now that Alta’s officially booked its place in the final, Heslop can’t wait.
“I’m very excited, it’s a great opportunity to compare ourselves against a great team. We just have to come out no fear,” said Heslop.