I just think it’s easier to not come into this tournament being the favorite. —American Fork head coach Corey Clayton
TAYLORSVILLE — The American Fork girls basketball team prefers to work as an underdog.
The Cavemen like to enter the 5A state tournament, as they did Tuesday against Region 7 champions Layton, aiming at the target rather than holding it.
“I just think it’s easier to not come into this tournament being the favorite,” said head coach Corey Clayton after his team upset the Lancers, 50-41.
“It’s easier to come in with a young team with nothing to lose and just go out and play,” he said. “I felt really good about coming here; we were excited to play and we knew we didn’t have anything to lose.”
The Cavemen, No. 4 out of Region 4, took their nothing-to-lose attitude and took advantage of the high-seeded Lancers’ tight start: American Fork hit three 3-pointers in the opening quarter, while Layton airballed as many and sent passes flying over teammates' heads.
“I think that kind of showed on both ends,” Clayton said, when asked how playing relaxed affected his team. “(Layton) had some open shots that usually they would knock down that go in-and-out. That’s just that tiny bit of tension that’s the difference between being a bucket and not.”
Meanwhile, hitting a handful of early shots and creating open lanes to the basket allowed the Cavemen to establish a dominance over their higher-ranked opponent.
“It helped us relax and realize our game plan was the right one,” Clayton said of the strong start. “I think that gives kids confidence, ‘Oh, our coaches have us in a good position.’ ”
The Lancers found their stride in the second period, using a 14-2 run to take the lead and take a 21-17 advantage into the halftime locker room. American Fork, however, used the break to re-implement the original game plan. Throughout the second half, the Cavemen used ball pressure and aggressive defense to knock the Lancers out of position and go on their own 12-0 scoring run and take back a lead they would never again relinquish.
“I thought our ball pressure was really important,” Clayton said. “I know they’re a system team that wants to run their stuff, and if you make them play more of a pickup game style, I thought that gave us more of an advantage.”
The coach added that his young guardline did a good job of keep the Layton veterans from setting up their offensive sets.
“We tried to make the ball handler not be able to get where they want to to get into their offense,” Clayton said. “Our young guards did a really good job. They got up and put pressure and bothered their ball handlers, and that was crucial.”
Jenna Shepherd, a sophomore guard, led the Cavemen with 22 points and three 3-pointers. She shot 9-of-11 from the foul line, all of which were taken in the final quarter.
“She’s really matured as the season’s gone. She’s just so athletic that she can get where she wants to get,” Clayton said. “Today she was just good. She’s a sophomore, which is pretty exciting to have a leader like that for the next two years.”
Maile Anderson, a 6-foot-3 junior, had 10 points for American Fork and Kylee Andrus scored seven.
The Cavemen will play in the quarterfinal round against Copper Hills Thursday at 5:50 p.m.
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.