Story and photos by Kurt Johnson
PROVO – As strong as the American Fork High boys basketball team has been over the past 10 years, there is one mountain it has found difficult to climb. Coming into Friday night’s Region 4 battle, played at the Marriott Center on campus at Brigham Young University, the Cavemen had one win in 17 matchups with Lone Peak since 2006.
Friday night, American Fork hit just four field goals over the fourth quarter and two overtime periods, but was money at the charity stripe, and that spelled the difference in its 77-73 win over the Knights. For the game, the Cavemen hit 25-of-27 free throws, with 6-foot-4 junior guard Spencer Johnson connecting on 16-of-17, all in that decisive 16 minutes.
The game was just the kind of neighborly battle to which fans of these two teams have become accustomed – intense defense, clutch performances, a large crowd and interesting twists and turns.
American Fork finally got over the hump and put itself in position to put the game away in the second overtime, after Lone Peak’s top player, 6-foot-3 guard Frank Jackson, fouled out while going for the steal on a pass along the sideline with 3:04 to go. Less than a minute later, the Knights were bitten on the defensive boards. After turning its own offensive rebounds into extra chances all night long, Lone Peak was unable to stop Johnson and American Fork from turning the tables.
Johnson missed a tap-in attempt off a missed shot, but then corralled his own rebound and finished it off to provide a four-point lead for the Cavemen. That basket was the only field goal American Fork hit in either extra period, as it scored 13 of its 15 overtime points from the line. It was that red-hot free throw work that proved too much for the Knights in this one.
The game opened as a back-and-forth affair as Jackson controlled much of the action for Lone Peak. Other than a single make by reserve forward Braxton Bruni in the second stanza, just three players scored at all for the Knights during the first half.
While Jackson (11 points), Christian Popoola (seven) and Nick Curtis (six) did most of their first-half damage attacking the rim and hitting short jumpers, the Cavemen benefited from their ability to hit the long ball. A pair of 3-pointers by 5-8 junior guard Braden Condie early in the second quarter helped American Fork build its biggest lead of the night, an eight-point advantage, at 30-22 midway through that period.
The Knights struggled to fend off the challenge presented by the Cavemen in the paint. Senior Cameron Poulton was a force on the backboards, as was 6-7 senior forward Dallin Harley, who also contributed big points on the offensive end, until he fouled out with 1:12 left in the first overtime.
Trailing by four points at intermission, the Knights took the lead back early in the third after 6-1 junior guard Tyson Doman followed up a Curtis jumper with a steal and lay-up. Johnson, however, drained two 3s late in the third to get the Cavemen back on top, and left Lone Peak scrambling to come from behind for most of the final regulation stanza.
The drama kicked into high gear during the game’s final three minutes, though most of the scoring still came at the charity stripe. After Popoola put back an offensive board to pull the Knights within one at 56-55 with 2:40 remaining, Johnson hit four straight free throws sandwiched around a pair of freebies by Jackson to keep American Fork on top, with a three-point lead as the game headed into its final minute.
Then, with 59 ticks left, Jackson unleashed a three-ball, looking to even the score, and found net only after the ball caromed off the glass. That tied the game at 60-60.
After a Caveman timeout, Johnson went back to the line and buried two more free throws at the 9.1-second mark. Then, Jackson forced the action going back the other way and drew a foul and dropped in his clutch shots from the line, leaving 5.5 seconds for American Fork, presumably, to go for the game-winner.
It didn’t work out quite as anticipated, however, as Johnson committed an offensive foul, with Talmage Gunther drawing the charge, at midcourt. That left Lone Peak three seconds of its own, but Jackson’s shot came up empty, and the teams went to overtime.
The trend of fouls and free throws continued in the extra session, as Johnson went to the line on two different occasions, giving the Cavemen a four-point advantage on four freebies. Then, it was Popoola’s turn to respond. The 6-3 sophomore scored on a drive to the bucket and later tied the game on a pair of free throws after Doman forced a back-court violation with aggressive defense.
Johnson picked up a steal in the final five seconds of the first overtime, and American Fork’s Brendan Bailey got a good look at the rim on a 12-foot baseline jumper, but the shot rimmed out and the game went to its second OT tied at 66.
From there, it was Johnson, Brayden Harris and Poulton cashing in on their chances at the free throw line that put the game on ice for the Cavemen, and with Jackson on the bench, Popoola was able to respond only with 3-of-4 from the stripe.
Jackson scored 34 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead the way for Lone Peak, which dropped its first game of the season against an in-state opponent. Popoola finished with 20 points, while Curtis scored 13 points and seven boards.
Johnson scored 33 for American Fork, which took sole possession of first place in the Region 4 standings with the win. The junior guard also ripped down 12 rebounds. Harley scored 17 and had nine boards for the Cavemen.
Lone Peak (3-1 in Region 4, 11-4 overall) now has a week to lick its wounds before visiting Pleasant Grove (2-1, 12-2) next Friday night. American Fork (3-0, 9-5) get right back to work against visiting Herriman (1-2, 8-5) at 7 p.m. Tuesday night.