Can you imagine what it was like to be American Fork senior guard Tanner Cuff Friday night?
Consider all the things that might have been running through his mind:
- The drama of the 6A state semifinal against Davis.
- The sight of just 7.3 seconds on the clock in a tie game in triple overtime.
- The recognition that the other four Cavemen starters were only able to watch from the bench, since they’d fouled out.
- The knowledge that you’d already missed a foul shot that could’ve won the game.
- The need to make one more play after being on the court for more than 41 minutes of game time.
But, as he had for the entire three extra periods, Cuff was ready to put the American Fork squad on his back and carry it to the finish.
Cuff got the ball on the baseline, spun past the Dart double team, collected himself and softly laid the ball into the basket, giving the Cavemen their final points. Davis’s final desperation shot came up short and American Fork emerged with the epic, heart-stopping 82-80 3OT win.
“It was crazy,” Cuff said. “I don’t even know what to say.”
Cuff explained that the final inbounds play had some options, depending on how it was defended.
“I was trying to get a catch out high and then get a screen, but they took that,” he said. “I went to the ball and got it. That’s my post move, to go baseline and then score. I was so happy but I was like, ‘we’ve got to get a stop because there are a couple of seconds on the clock.’”
Cuff was actually guarding the Dart player who took the final shot from about 25 feet out.
“I just put my hands up and hoped for the best,” Cuff said.
Tanner Cuff’s father Ryan Cuff is also the head coach for the Cavemen, so watching his lone starter and son make that final play was intensely emotional.
“To move him his senior year, but to have arms put around him and have the players accept him, it’s fun,” Ryan Cuff said. “It’s why we do what we do. You live for these moments.”
While he was thrilled for his guys, the American Fork head coach couldn’t help but feel for the Davis players who ended up on the short end of the score.
“The kids came and fought, both teams,” Ryan Cuff said. “You hate to see anyone lose. You kind of want to keep it going on.”
The Darts appeared to be in control with a 52-45 lead in the fourth quarter, but their attempt to spread the floor appeared to take them out of some of their rhythm.
American Fork senior center Isaac Johnson (28 points) spurred the Cavemen comeback as he scored 13 of 15 point for his team during the key stretch, including knocking down a 3-pointer that made the score 57-56.
“We knew we had to go to him,” Ryan Cuff said. “We had to pound it and try to get to the foul line, get back and cut into the lead.”
American Fork forced a turnover, then got a 3-pointer from senior guard McKay Smith to take the lead. The Cavemen had chances to put the game away from the free-throw line but could only get up by three points (63-60).
That proved to be not enough as with under 10 seconds to play, Davis guard Trevon Leonhardt knocked down a clutch, game-tying 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.
American Fork appeared to be in serious trouble in the first extra period as the Cavemen – who usually have six or seven players in their rotation – started having starters foul out.
First it was freshman Noah Moeaki, then seniors Trey Stewart and Hayden Franson. Finally Johnson, after seeing what would’ve been the game-tying dunk bounce out, picked up his fifth foul as well.
That meant Cuff was the only starter in the game and Smith was the only American Fork player to see consistent minutes still available to play.
“I was just like, oh my heck,” Tanner Cuff said. “But other guys stepped up. I was so proud of all the bench players who stepped up. I love them. The others were cheering for us on the bench and supported us because they wanted to play another day.”
Ryan Cuff lauded the way the players who were unable to return to action did everything they could to help out the team.
“I’m proud of those guys for being cheerleaders on the bench,” he said. “They did the next best thing they could. They didn’t quit but kept encouraging the guys and believing we could do this.”
But it was junior guard Josh Van Schalkwyk, junior guard Bridger Flinders and senior guard Benson Brown who came in and used their fresh legs to hound the Davis players and allow American Fork to stay close.
Meanwhile, Tanner Cuff took care of the scoring, putting in 16 straight points (tallying 25 for the game).
When the Cavemen went down 69-65 in the first extra frame, he trained a deep 3-pointer in transition to narrow the gap.
It looked like it might not be enough when the Darts took the 71-70 lead after being fouled on a layup attempt with under three seconds to left.
But American Fork threw the ball deep and got a deflection, then Tanner Cuff was held as he tried to go up for the potentially game-winning tip.
He stepped to the line and made the first foul shot to tie the game but was short on the second one.
He said after the game that being able to redeem himself with the layup in the third overtime saved him from having that missed free throw haunt him forever.
“I was so glad I got to redeem myself,” Tanner Cuff said. “I would have hated myself if I missed that and we ended up losing.”
Tanner Cuff made a layup and two free throws to keep the game all square in the second overtime, then tacked on a jump shot, a free throw and a layup to set up the dramatic final sequence.
The Cavemen hero said the final celebration was “awesome” but added that American Fork was quick to put things in perspective. The win meant the Cavemen advance to face Region 4 rival Pleasant Grove for the third time with the highest stakes of all.
“We have one more,” Tanner Cuff said. “I’m so excited to play them. We hung with them both times but we didn’t play the best we wanted to play. Our defense wasn’t as good, so hopefully our defense will be better tomorrow.”
Ryan Cuff said American Fork will be ready for the challenge, even after needing so much energy to get past the Darts.
“We’re pleased but not satisfied,” Ryan Cuff said. “We feel we’ve had a good year and have a good team. We’ve put ourselves in a position to play in an incredible state championship game.”
The Cavemen will face the Vikings with the 6A title on the line at the Dee Events Center in Ogden Saturday. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.