OGDEN — Someone’s decades-long title drought was coming to an end at Weber State on Saturday night in the 6A state championship.
The combined drought between region rivals American Fork and Pleasant Grove stretched back 98 years, with the Vikings accounting for 58 of those years.
First-year American Fork coach Ryan Cuff talked often this year about rewriting that history, so much so that senior Trey Stewart said, “he talks about it every day.”
In a showdown between the top two teams in the state, both eager to rearrange their dusty trophy cases, American Fork built a modest halftime lead and never relinquished it in the second half on its way to the claiming the 66-57 victory and its first state championship since 1979.
“I told them history matters, there are a lot of people that have come through (American Fork),” said Cuff.
Pleasant Grove swept American Fork in region play to enter the playoffs with the No. 1 ranking, but both games were decided in the final minute and American Fork knew the third meeting figured to be as tight.
“In both of those games we just wanted our guys to know we were right there and we had our chances. We missed shots, we knew that we were going to execute good, we just had to make extra stops defensively. We knew we could score, we just had to buckle down and get the job done on the defensive end,” Cuff.
In the previous two games Pleasant Grove scored 60 and 86 points, but on Saturday it couldn’t find the same type of rhythm.
“I just felt like we played harder, keeping guys in front of us and boxing out,” said Stewart.
The goal for American Fork defensively was getting three stops in a row, which the defense did on two very important occasions in the critical third quarter.
It got three stops early in the third to stretch its 31-27 halftime lead to 38-29. After Pleasant Grove responded by scoring on three straight trips to whittle the lead to 38-36, the Cavemen again got three defensive stops to push the cushion back to eight.
The lead hovered around six to eight points until the end of the third and then deep into the fourth quarter as Pleasant Grove could never quite hit the big shot that made it a one-possession game.
Missed free throws by American Fork left the door open, though, for Pleasant Grove.
On the ensuing possession after the Cavemen missed the front end of their second 1-and-1, Kael Mikkelsen buried a 3-pointer for Pleasant Grove to trim the lead to 56-53 with 2:35 remaining. Mikkelsen and Casey Brown both scored 19 points to lead the Vikings.
With American Fork seemingly going 1 for 2 every trip to the line, it wasn’t about to sit on the lead and wait to get fouled. It stayed aggressive and Tanner Cuff and Stewart scored at the rim on consecutive possessions to push the lead back to five points each time.
Pleasant Grove couldn’t match with 3-pointers at the other end as American Fork pulled away in the final minute.
Stewart and Cuff both scored 18 points to lead American Fork.
The night before Stewart fouled out and watched helplessly from the bench as his team gutted out a triple-overtime win over Davis. He wasn’t about to squander what he felt was a second opportunity to succeed.
“I was just grateful for the opportunity, just being in the locker room I was just so grateful. And luckily we got a second chance and I wanted to make the most of it,” said Stewart.5 comments on this story
Preventing Pleasant Grove's 7-foot-4 center Matt Van Komen from getting into a groove played a big role in that success. In the previous two meetings Van Komen scored 16 and 10 points, but American Fork’s bigs collapsed in on him whenever he touched the ball in the paint as he only scored 10 points.
“We just focused on defense better today, and we played better defense instead of the last few games and got it done,” said Tanner Cuff, who was named the Deseret News tournament MVP.
Deseret News 6A All-Tournament Team
MVP — Tanner Cuff, American Fork
Isaac Johnson, American Fork
Trey Stewart, American Fork
Casey Brown, Pleasant Grove
Kael Mikkelsen, Pleasant Grove
Dallin Hall, Fremont