American Fork spent 23 straight minutes from the second quarter on trying to hold back Cyprus’ desperate push to get back into Thursday’s 6A semifinal. So when the Pirates hit a deep 3-pointer to tie the game with 1:18 remaining and the Dee Events Center started rocking with Cyprus energy, it was gut check time for American Fork.
“The biggest thing we talked about was weathering the storm, onto next play,” said American Fork’s Ashton Wallace.
That’s exactly what the third-seeded Cavemen did. They executed the next offensive sequence to get to the free-throw line and regain the lead for good as they hung on for the 49-44 win over No. 2 Cyprus in a thrilling semifinal at the Dee Events Center.
American Fork scored its last seven points in the final 44 seconds from the free-throw line to seal the win.
“We knew it was going to be a dogfight, and we knew it would come down to the defensive end of things and weather the storm at the end. They made some big plays which we knew they were capable of doing,” said American Fork coach Ryan Cuff.
With the win, American Fork advances to Saturday’s 6A state championship game against top seed Corner Canyon at 4:30 p.m. It’s a rematch of last year’s state championship, which American Fork won at BYU 43-39.
“We just know they’re playing really, really confident right now, and they’re a very, very good basketball team. We have a lot of respect for them. I know they have a chip on their shoulder a little bit, but at the end of the day it’s 0-0. We put ourselves in a position to come out and play for 32 minutes. We’re excited about being able to have that chance to do it,” said Cuff.
For Ashton Wallace, who led American Fork’s balanced scoring attack in the semifinal with 14 points, getting back to the final is something he told his coach they were going to do roughly 365 days ago.
“That one was big because right after last year’s championship run I went up to coach Cuff and said ‘We’re going back, we’re going back,’ so that’s been on my mind since last year and winning with that team,” said Wallace.
American Fork trailed 13-12 after the first quarter, but it scored quickly in the second quarter to grab a lead it held onto for all but a few seconds. It stretched it to as many as 12 in the third quarter, and looked comfortably ahead 42-32 with six minutes left in the game.
That’s when Cyprus guard Diego Mulford started to take over. The 5-foot-9 guard was shadowed defensively virtually the entire game by American Fork’s junior Tiger Cuff and was scoreless through three quarters.
He’s a key scoring piece for Cyprus to complement star player Quentin Meza, but with Meza struggling with his shot and Mulford getting no looks, it was tough sledding for the Pirates through three quarters.
Mulford scored his first points of the game early in the fourth on a layup, and then hit a deep 3-pointer with 5:18 left to whittle it to 42-35. On Cyprus next possession he cut the lead to 42-37 on another layup, and then Spies Tia scored on his own layup to cut it to 42-39.
As Cyprus continued to score, American Fork just kept misfiring at the other end as it went over four and half minutes without scoring.
Mulford hit an even deeper 3-pointer to complete the Cyprus comeback with 1:18 remaining in the game leveling the score at 42-42 in a rocking atmosphere at Weber State.
After a timeout, coach Cuff simply drew up a play to either get a play at the rim or draw a foul, and that’s what Tiger Cuff did as he knocked down both free throws for the 44-42 lead with 44 seconds left — American Fork’s first points since taking the 42-32 lead.
“I think at the end of the day that’s a big part of what we try and do is execute, get the ball inside outside, share the ball, but then make the extra pass but in that situation,” said Ryan Cuff.
At the other end, Cyprus was whistled for an offensive foul on a screen with 35 seconds left, and from there it had no choice but to foul. Wallace calmly stepped to the line and sank two more for the 46-42 lead with 22 seconds remaining.
“Fitting for Wallace to be at the foul line and finish it. The kid is very unselfish. He could go and get some of the points that some of the better scores can get, but he’s locked down guys defensively and he does the dirty work in order to be the player that he is and for us to be the team that we are,” said Ryan Cuff.
Cyprus missed three straight 3-pointers at the other end, but got a tip in with 2.4 seconds left to cut the lead to 46-44. That was as close as it would get as American Fork tacked on three more free throws in the final second for the victory.
In the loss Tia and Meza both scored 16 points, but as a team Cyprus struggled offensively against American Fork’s length defensively and only shot 31 percent.