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Qiling Wang, Deseret News
American Fork's Isaac Johnson (33) lays up the ball against Orem's Collin Hegstead (24) during a basketball game at American Fork High School in American Fork on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

AMERICAN FORK — In a game that American Fork dominated early, it found itself in a dogfight in the final couple minutes as it was forced to grind out a 76-73 win over a spirited Orem squad.

American Fork led by as many as 15 points in the first half on Friday night, but Orem battled all the way back and even took a 66-65 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

The Cavemen regained the lead on a Hayden Franson rebound putback and never relinquished it over those final three minutes — which included denying Orem a good look a potential game-tying 3-pointer during a 30-second possession to end the game.

The Tigers were forced to settle for a deep 3-pointer, which missed deep.

“We had a great defensive stop on that last play,” said American Fork’s Tanner Cuff, who said that was the key in the final few minutes after squandering a big lead. “We were just trying to focus on defense and get some stops 'cause we couldn’t get stops the whole game.”

Orem made 11 3-pointers to offset American Fork’s height inside. Those two bigs led the Cavemen in scoring as Isaac Johnson finished with 23 points and Franson added 15 as their team improved to 7-0 this season.

American Fork was in control early leading by 13 after the first quarter, but Orem trimmed it to 41-33 by halftime and then 59-52 by the end of the third quarter. Orem then used a 6-0 run to open the fourth trimming the lead to 59-58.

The Tigers claimed their first and only lead of the game at the 4:00 mark as Taft Mitchell scored on a driving layup for the 66-65 lead.

Mitchell finished with 28 points, as did teammate Shem Johnson who knocked down seven 3-pointers.

Orem had to play without leading scorer Puka Nacua, who’s out of town this weekend on his official football recruiting visit to USC. The Tigers missed his athleticism, but other players stepped up to pick up the scoring slack.

American Fork set the tone right from the opening tip as Trey Stewart and Tanner Cuff buried back-to-back 3-pointers on the first two possessions of the game. Over the rest of the half it controlled the game in the paint, with 22 of its 41 first-half points coming inside.

Despite American Fork’s quick start, Johnson hit a couple of timely 3s midway through the first quarter which helped kept the game from getting out of hand for the visitors.

Johnson added two more 3-pointers in the second quarter, baskets that cut the lead to single digits by halftime.

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“We just need to learn how to keep stepping on the gas and not let up when we get up that much in the beginning. We’ve done that in most of our games,” said Cuff.

In the third quarter, Orem cut the deficit to five on three different occasions, but American Fork freshman Noah Moeaki had a response each time, scoring 10 points in the quarter to stretch the lead back to 57-44 with under two minutes left in the third.

Johnson closed the quarter with eight straight points — including two 3s — as Orem trimmed the lead to 59-52 heading into the fourth quarter.