By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
AMERICAN FORK – The organizers of the Utah Elite 8 preseason boys basketball tournament set out to bring together a group of the state’s strongest teams to compete in a “true tournament” format. To many of the participants, it is a chance to see where they stand and to get a taste of what late February basketball is like.
The tournament has received what it wanted, a lot of great basketball combined with a little bit that has not been so great, but that’s not to say there have not been surprises. What have we learned after two days of play at the Elite 8? For some of us, we have discovered that we might not spend enough time watching basketball in Northern Utah.
In a tournament that included tournament-host American Fork, along with 5A front-of-the-pack teams Layton and Brighton on one side of the bracket, take a bow if you had Sky View reaching the tournament title game.
With the field including Bingham on the other side of the draw, take another bow if you knew that a rebuilding, or can we now officially say reloading? Davis team would reach the tourney championship battle.
Here are some of the top stories from the first two days of play in the new Fieldhouse at American Fork High.
1) Sky View vs. Davis in the final
With those three talented Class 5A teams on its side of the draw, this looked like an uphill battle for Sky View coming in, but we are quickly learning that the Bobcats have a lot of good things going on in that program. This is a team that plays hard and doesn’t beat itself, and is doesn’t hurt to have an individual player go off now and again.
For Sky View, that player was Jake Hendricks, and it came in the tournament opener Thursday against the host team. Hendricks drained 6-of-8 from 3-point range, including a late trey that proved to be the game-winner as the Bobcats knocked off American Fork 59-56.
Game 2 was very different Friday, as Sky View buried 31 free throws after intermission (after going 0-for-1 from the line the entire first half), and scored just four second-half field goals, as they took a 72-62 win over Layton. Hendricks scored just nine in this one, but he was not the one the Lancers sent to the line.
Now, Sky View will take a crack at knocking off its third straight 5A opponent when it faces another team from the northern part of the state, Davis, in the tournament finale at 5 p.m. Saturday.
Davis has been riding the talent of point guard Jesse Wade as it beat Mountain Crest by 21 to open the tournament and then beat Yoeli Childs and Bingham in what has to be considered at least a mild upset in Friday’s nightcap. Wade got some great assistance inside from senior Caleb Leonhardt and sophomore southpaw Ben Rigby, as the Darts beat the Miners 63-58 to earn their spot on Saturday night.
2) Jesse Wade
There is still one day of games left, but as we enter Saturday’s games, there is no doubt that Davis’ Jesse Wade has been the player of the tournament. The Gonzaga commit scored 28 Thursday and backed that up with a 32 points, 8 rebound, 5 assist, 3 steal performance in Friday’s semifinal.
When it came time for patience, the Darts put the ball in Wade’s hands and he was the model of restraint. When the time came to attack, he took the ball hard to the rim or pulled up for a dagger three that put Bingham on its heels. And at the free-throw line…forget about it. Wade hit 14-of-16 from the stripe in his 17-point fourth quarter as he iced the game for Davis.
It was a two-point game entering the fourth quarter, and the Miners were riding a 6-0 run that closed out the third period. Wade buried four free throws with a 3-pointer sandwiched between that opened the game back up to a nine-point margin, and the Darts put it away from there, going 21-of-24 from the stripe as a team in the fourth.
Game on the line, he wants the ball in his hands, and once it’s there, he always makes the right decision and the correct play. It’s amazing to watch.
3) Stars shining…and one missing
These tournaments can’t help but generate a big-game feel, and that’s when big stars shine. The Utah Elite 8 tournament is no different in that regard. Wade is just one example of the stars stepping up on the big stage, but there are others.
Childs is another player who has been outstanding through two games. His post moves have improved immensely and he has the ability to get to the rim with power. The junior’s ability to dominate the paint is why he has 42 points through two tournament games.
Layton’s Jarriesse Blackmon was huge on opening night, with 20 points, but foul trouble put him on the bench for all but four minutes of the second half Friday. He should have a major chip on his shoulder when the Lancers take on Bingham in the third-place game Saturday afternoon.
American Fork has leaned on the Spencer Johnson/Brendan Bailey all year, and this tournament is no different. Johnson scored 15 Thursday and then 25 Friday, while Bailey went for 17 each night as the Cavemen split a pair of games.
Brock Miller scored 26 Thursday and then 17 Friday for Brighton, which has lost two with a very difficult draw in this tournament. Mountain Crest sophomore Jaxon Brenchley has been getting a lot of headlines early this season, and his 43 points through two contests served to feed they hype.
One player who figures to eventually make a huge difference this season who has not been on the court this weekend is Bingham guard Kyle Gearig. After a very strong finish a year ago, the senior is sidelined by an injury sustained during football season. He is expected to return by region play, and when he does, this Miner team will look a little bit different.
4) Fouls and foul shooting
Clearly, foul shooting was critical in the Davis win over Bingham, as the Darts ran clock for most of the fourth period, daring the Miners to send them to the line. The Wade through in the opening moments of the final stanza was the only Davis field goal in the fourth, but because the Darts were money from the charity stripe, Bingham was never able to get any closer than five points after that initial Jesse Wade fourth-quarter surge.
Possibly a bigger story was the cascade of whistles that marred the semifinal matchup between Layton and Sky View. Granted, once Jarriesse Blackmon fouled out 40 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Lancers seemed to be intentionally sending the Bobcats to the line the rest of the night, but before that, Layton had topped 10 second-half fouls with two minutes left in the third quarter.
It seemed that every little incident of contact was whistled, and the game became a series of restarts and visits to the free-throw line. This type of game brings to mind at least two things:
1) Let them play. I think the paying customers in the arena would have preferred to see them let a little contact go and see what could have happened if these two teams could get into a flow…& 2) Can we please get a shot clock? When teams start the fouling to stop the clock with seven minutes left, you have to wonder how much better the game could be if they instead could try to defend without fouling for 30 or 35 seconds, get a stop and then try to slice into the lead.
5) Late-Game Performers
Matt Cragun of Layton is at the top of this list, as he won Thursday night’s game against Brighton with a 3-pointer that came with less than three seconds remaining. Honorable mention goes to Hendricks, with those six 3-pointers and the late game-deciding three-ball that also came Thursday night.
6) Bingham student section
The Pit Crew showed up pretty well Friday night. It was not a huge Bingham student section, but I have to give them points for being into the game. As the Miners kept fouling Wade and sending him to the line during that decisive fourth quarter, there were groans of agony from within the Pit Crew – “not him.”
Then, as he hit his first 12 attempts from the line, the conversation picked up among those students as they tried to come up with more creative ways to distract him from the bleachers behind the Davis basket. When the Dart point guard finally rimmed one out, the Miner students let out a cheer and seemed to be congratulating themselves for finally getting a missed foul shot. Wade finally threw them a bone.
7) The Fieldhouse
American Fork has a great new facility on campus in which to play its games, and the building is one of the great stories of the Utah Elite 8 tournament. With the live streaming from SFAN.TV being broadcast on the big screen inside the arena as well as to computers outside the venue, the atmosphere is a good one for a tournament like this one.
The tournament concludes Saturday with four games, and all will also be streamed live at www.sfan.tv. The Davis vs. Sky View championship game is a classic matchup of two teams who are fundamentally sound and try to control the pace. It will be interesting to see if the Bobcats can make it three straight against the powers of Class 5A.
Here is the Saturday Utah Elite 8 tournament game schedule at American Fork High School:
12:00 PM – Mountain Crest vs. Brighton (7th place game)
1:40 PM – American Fork vs. Corner Canyon (5th place game)
3:20 PM – Bingham vs. Layton (3rd place game)
5:00 PM – Davis vs. Sky View (championship game)