As if having a 16-game winning streak snapped at home on senior night wasn’t bad enough, the taste was even more bitter for Westlake because of the trash talk from American Fork that night two weeks ago.
“They were talking trash the entire game so we really wanted this one bad,” said Westlake captain Noah McCord about the rematch in Thursday’s 6A semifinals.
“It really put a fire in us and everybody just wanted to punch them in the mouth,” echoed Noah Madsen.
Two weeks ago in the Region 4 showdown, American Fork did the punching on its way to a dominant 16-point victory, but it was payback on Thursday night for Westlake as it booked its spot in Saturday’s 6A state championship with a 68-60 victory.
It will be Westlake’s first state championship game in school history.
“I think we had the mental edge. Coming out of the game, I gave the last words to our captain Noah McCord and he’s very passionate, he said these guys ruined our 16-game winning streak, they ruined our senior night, now it’s our turn to get ‘em when it counts,” said Westlake coach Nate Carling.
In a game that was incredibly tight through the first half, Westlake closed the third quarter on a 12-4 run to open up a 48-40 lead — a lead that never dipped below five points in the fourth quarter with near-flawless efficiency offensively.
“Each shot we had was right at the rim or kick-out 3. Every shot we had was our shot,” said Madsen.
The fourth quarter included multiple back-breaking backdoor layups when American Fork desperately needed a defensive stop to try and claw back into the game.
With the win, Westlake advances to Saturday’s state championship game at 2:30 p.m.
“We’ve been playing together, there’s much love in the locker room, there’s so much love on the court and there’s no other team in the state that has that, and that’s why we’re here and some teams are sitting at home,” said McCord.
Kaleb Furey led Westlake offensively on Thursday scoring 17 points, with Madsen and Kaden Hoppins each chipping in with 14. The fact that McCord, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season, only scored five points and Hoppins came off the bench and scored 14 speaks to the unselfishness of Westlake’s squad.
“A lot of it is great kids that have been together a long time, that’s probably the biggest key. These kids have played together, they know each other, they love each other, they trust each other,” said Carling, whose team earned the top seed in the 6A state tournament after posting an 18-3 regular season record.
One of those three losses came against American Fork back on Feb. 16, and Carling said that loss was an eye opener for his team — particularly with regards to defending American Fork big man Jaxon Kohler.
Kohler finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds in that game, and his efficiency was contagious early as American Fork built a big lead Westlake couldn’t recover from.
“We knew we had to bring the house on Kohler,” said Carling. “We really brought a lot of help and trusted our guys on the backside to hold down the fort.”
Kohler had a better statistical game on Thursday than he did in that earlier game, finishing with 26 points and 18 rebounds, but many of those points came on putbacks and tip-ins as his initial shots weren’t dropping.
“He never got into a great rhythm,” said Carling.
Westlake, meanwhile, was in a great rhythm offensively finishing the game shooting 48%, and it never stopped attacking. On four different occasions in the fourth quarter, American Fork cut the deficit to five points, but the Thunder never stalled or tried to waste time and just kept attacking the basket looking for easy buckets.
Of Westlake’s 20 points in the fourth quarter, 10 came on layups and 10 came from the free-throw line.
“In a semifinal game, to have all that composure is really impressive,” said Carling.
Westlake only committed six turnovers during the entire game, which helped it overcome American Fork’s 38-28 edge on the glass, which included 19 offensive rebounds.