The temperature was fairly mild in American Fork Thursday night, but the Payson Lions felt like they were playing basketball at the North Pole in their 54-45 Region 6 loss to the top-ranked American Fork Cavemen - especially in the first half.
To say the Lions were cold is an understatement. You could have kept Popsicles frozen with their shooting percentage. For the first 16 minutes Payson's offense was, quite frankly, on ice.
The Lions managed only four points in each of the first two quarters. That added up to a total of four baskets and eight points at halftime. Payson's two top scorers, Tyler Newbold and Blake Francom, who are averaging a combined 36 points per game, posted zilch in the opening two periods. Newbold finished with 11 and Francom four.
American Fork coach Doug Meacham credits his team's focus, preparation and defense for much of that poor shooting. Also, the Cavemen were not going to let the two powerful Lions beat them.
"Our game was to force them to take tough shots and we did that," Meacham said.
The Lions also must have felt like the paint was an octopus' garden, because every time they went inside there were hands everywhere. The Cavemen finished the game with 15 steals and countless deflections. Forward David Olsen was especially effective at causing defensive havoc inside.
"He's a smart player. He understands the game," Olsen's coach said.
But the game's deciding moments came when junior guard Austin Haws came off the bench late in the first quarter. The low-scoring game was tied 4-4 at the time. But with Haws on the court the Cavemen (12-3, 4-0) scored the final basket of the opening quarter and the first 13 of the second period to run out to a 19-4 lead.
It wasn't Haws' offense that did the damage. It was his anticipation in the passing lanes. The quick-footed junior with loads of energy repeatedly swiped passes and found open teammates for easy scoring chances. He finished the game with a season-high seven steals, most coming in the second period. Meacham again credited Haws' focus and preparation from watching game films for his good performance.
"He knew what he needed to do when he came in the game," Meacham said.
However, the Lions (9-6, 3-1) didn't repeat their cold shooting in the second half and actually made a game of it. After an Olsen put-back hoop put the Cavemen up 27-8, the Lions upped the tempo and went on a 9-0 run to close the lead to 10. The margin remained there for several minutes until Clayton Searle finished the quarter on a buzzer-beating jumper to put American Fork ahead 39-23.
Payson made one last run in the fourth and could have trimmed American Fork's lead to eight, but Searle blocked a Francom fast-break layup and Haws hit a three-pointer on the other end. Moments later back-to-back driving layups by Brenan Davis and Rick Shoff pushed the Cavemen's lead back to 16, enough to hold off Payson's final-minute charge.
"We still have to learn to finish games," Meacham said.