TAYLORSVILLE — The 5A playoff game was a learning experience for the young players on American Fork's girls basketball team.
It was a chance for American Fork, primarily made up of sophomores and freshmen, to experience playing in a quarterfinal matchup on the big floor at Salt Lake Community College. It was also an opportunity to learn how to run out to a big lead and then close the game.
The latter is a lesson the Cavemen faltered with Thursday evening against Copper Hills, but ultimately lived up to, earning every piece of their 61-51 victory.
“Anytime you have a young team like that, finishing off games is always a dicey situation,” coach Corey Clayton said. “But I was proud of them. We had a couple girls come off the bench and some hit key shots when they were making their run.”
In the opening quarter, American Fork got points from seven different players en route to an early double-digit lead, 20-9. The Cavemen scored six points before Copper Hills hit its first bucket. The lead extended in the second quarter, with more kids finding ways to score and posting a 39-21 advantage at halftime.
The Grizzlies put up a big fight in the third period. After shooting just 29.6 percent in the first 16 minutes, Copper Hills improved to 40.9 percent and hit a string of 3-pointers, including successive 3s by senior Sarah Midgley and sophomore Shirsten Wissinger, midway through the quarter that put American Fork on its heels.
The Cavemen began to panic, committing turnovers and fouls, before knocking down their own big shots to right the rocking ship.
“I thought Shire (Stephenson)'s shot in the corner was huge and then Paige Farnsworth’s shot right after that,” Clayton said. “That kind of stemmed the tide, because they were coming.”
The American Fork coaching staff was pleased with how the young players, including Stephenson, a sophomore, and Farnsworth, a freshman, responded with level heads during those frantic moments.
“We were just reminding them over and over” of their defensive assignments, Clayton said when asked of the adjustments the Cavemen made during Copper Hills' run. “Like when we say, ‘Don’t let them shoot 3s,’ and they still let them shoot 3s, I don’t know how else to say that. But that’s what you get with young kids, and now after they hit two or three, they realize, ‘Oh, they’re going to shoot them from 4 feet behind there, I can’t just stand at the 3-point line.’”
Now, Clayton added, his players have that experience to refer to moving forward.
“That’s the beauty of having young kids get experience,” he said, “because you can’t teach that stuff until they’ve made those mistakes. And then, once they’ve made them, they’re less likely to make them again.”
The Cavemen shot 48.7 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from behind the 3-point line. Farnsworth finished with 11 points, including a 3-for-5 performance from 3-point territory, and six assists. Meanwhile, freshman Taylor Moeaki had 10 points and hit 6 of 8 free throws with five rebounds while sophomore point guard Jenna Shepherd led American Fork with 12 points.
“She’s uber-competitive,” Clayton said of Shepherd. “Whatever she has to do, she’ll get the job done. Even when she’s not playing well, she’s competitive. She’s competitive at tiddlywinks — it doesn’t matter.”
Shepherd was 3 for 8 from the floor, 5 for 8 from the foul line with one rebound, four assists and four steals.
Copper Hills was led by Savannah Sandberg, who had a game-high 16 points with two steals, and Wissinger, who had 14 points. Midgley finished with six points and two boards, while Sydney May grabbed a Grizzlies-best six boards.
American Fork will meet Alta in the 2:30 p.m. semifinal game Friday. The two met in the first game of the season, a matchup the Hawks won by seven points.
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.