It may sound like a volleyball term but to the American Fork boys basketball team, it was the key to finally defeating its nemesis, Pleasant Grove, on the biggest stage in the 6A finals at the Dee Events Center in Ogden.
“We have this thing that we call ‘kills,’” Caveman senior center Isaac Johnson said. “If you get three stops in a row, that’s one kill. We told ourselves that if we get five kills tonight, we get a win.”
American Fork head coach Ryan Cuff explained that his team knew stopping the potent Viking offense wouldn’t be easy. Pleasant Grove scored 60 points in the first Region 4 contest against the Cavemen and 86 points in the second.
“We knew we had to get stops, consecutive stops,” Cuff said. “It’s hard to do against a good team. Against some teams this year, our goal was to get eight kills. We had to be more realistic and moved it down. We said five was going to get it done, because in the previous two games against Pleasant Grove we had only gotten three in each.”
This time, however, American Fork got their five kills — and in doing so put itself in position to emerge with the 66-57 victory and win its first boys basketball title in 40 years.
“We’ve never felt that before,” Johnson said. “In the last two years, we’ve seen it from the stands. We haven’t even gotten to play in a state game. This was a year of firsts for us. It was the first time we ever won the Elite 8 championship at our own place, the first time we won an out-of-state tournament — and it was the first state championship in 40 years.”
The Cavemen hadn’t won a state title in boys basketball since 1979 but for this team, it was about what they could accomplish.
The seven American Fork seniors played a huge role in making sure their team was able to reach its potential.
“We’ve had teams in the past that had a ton of seniors but I feel like together as a senior class, we’ve been the most inclusive,” Johnson said. “We’ve been the most together. I feel like we were great friends, on and off the court. It’s a great feeling to win with your friends.”
The Cavemen cohesion played a big role on the floor on Saturday as they had more than twice as many assists as Pleasant Grove (15-7) and their help defense forced the Vikings into tough shots.
“They missed some shots and we made shots,” American Fork senior guard Tanner Cuff said. “We played better than we had in the first two games. We got the lead and I don’t think they had been down in too many games. It came down to rebounding and defense. We got stops.”
Ryan Cuff said that assists had been one of the big focuses for this Caveman group since it helped them develop the team-first mentality.
“We’ve had challenges and it wasn’t easy,” the American Fork coach said. “One of the best stats that we always talked about was assists. We averaged about 20 assists per game and that shows unselfishness. That’s the most gratifying part to me, as a coach, because it is a team game.”
Another factor for many of the Cavemen starters was that four of them had only been able to watch from the bench during the final overtime periods of Friday’s dramatic 82-80 triple-overtime win over Davis in the 6A semifinals.
“That motivated us so much more to not take it for granted,” American Fork senior forward Hayden Franson said. “We had to be on the floor, had to be there.”
Ryan Cuff said the team talked a little bit about that before the title game on Saturday but that he could see his guys were ready.
“You could sense that they couldn’t wait to take the floor,” Ryan Cuff said. “They saw what their teammates did for them. They had locked arms on the bench, wanting so bad for their teammates to give them another game, another chance. I didn’t have to say hardly anything today. I knew they would come out and play hard because of that experience.”
Pleasant Grove started the game strong and took an early 14-6 lead, but four key Caveman 3-pointers helped American Fork close the deficit and then go in front.
Once the Cavemen took the lead, they wouldn’t relinquish it no matter what the Vikings did to get back in the game.
“They outplayed us,” Pleasant Grove head coach Randy McAllister said. “Their roster is a basketball roster. They have size and those guys have ability. Sometimes the short, fast, good-shooting team with the tall center isn’t going to win every time. Sometimes that tall team with ability and skill is going to play well enough to win — and they sure did that tonight.”
The game was close in the final minutes but American Fork came up with the rebounds and free throws it had to have to put the game away.
“When McKay Smith got a rebound in the final seconds and was going to the line, I knew we had it,” American Fork senior guard Trey Stewart said. “It was great. It was crazy.”
The four Cavemen senior starters provided the offensive scoring for American Fork as Tanner Cuff and Stewart scored 18 points apiece, Franson put in 13 and Johnson added 10.
The Vikings got 19 points each from senior Casey Brown and junior Kael Mikkelsen but no other Pleasant Grove player scored more than six points.
It was a tough conclusion to a phenomenal year for the Vikings, a team that beat American Fork twice in the regular season and only lost a single game to in-state competition.
“One of our coaches had a great statement, saying they lost the game but won the battle because they are leaving this program as improved human beings and improved basketball players,” McAllister said. “You’ve already won what matters. I thought that was great perspective. They are great kids and they are going to be phenomenal adults. It was heartbreak today but tomorrow we regroup.”
But this game belonged to the Cavemen, who always had an answer to every Pleasant Grove push.
When the buzzer sounded, it was time for American Fork to celebrate.
“With all the hard work we’ve done, running those miles, all the work has paid off,” Stewart said.
Franson added: “It’s a dream. Last year we didn’t even make it to state and this year we are state champs. It doesn’t even feel real yet.”