LOWELLVILLE — It may still be early in the high school basketball season, but games between two league contenders are always hotly contested affairs any time they meet.
Such was the case when MVAC rivals Springfield and Lowellville faced each other Tuesday night in a packed Rockets gymnasium. The Tigers, despite a delayed start due to prolonged football playoff games, squeaked past the Rockets 58-54 in the final minute of the contest to remain unbeaten in the league.
“That was a great high school basketball game,” Tigers coach Jeff Brink stated. “We have a ton of respect for that Lowellville Rocket team and coach Olson. We knew it was going to be a dog fight. We told our guys that it was going to be a battle. It was crucial to get this win early in the year.”
The Tigers improve now to 4-0 on the season and 3-0 in the league. The Rockets dropped their first game of the year with a 6-1 mark, 2-1 in the conference.
“We knew coming into the year, just because they (Lowellville) have been starting since they were freshman and getting a lot better. We knew they were going to work hard and want to win it (MVAC) this year,” Tigers senior Adam Wharry remarked about the early first-place battle.
Following a basket by the Rockets’ Vinny Ballone with just 1:12 remaining in the game to tie the contest at 54-54, Wharry would answer with a basket moments later to put his team back up by two at 56-54. Following a couple of missed shots by the Rockets, Springfield’s Sean Guerriero would come up clutch in the final 22 seconds.
Faced with a one-and-one, Guerriero stepped up to the free-throw line with the Rocket fans screaming and coolly drained both free throws to secure the Tigers 58-54 win.
“It was crazy,” Guerriero claimed. “We were all tired, but we somehow found something left in the tank and managed to come through and get the win.”
The game was a see-saw affair with numerous runs and momentum swings. The Rockets led early as they held an 11-9 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Tigers gained their first lead at the 5:06 mark of the second quarter when Wharry landed a three from the top of the key to make it 16-14 in the Tigers favor.
That three was part of a 12-1 run the Tigers enjoyed at the start of the second period.
The Tigers led by eight points at 23-15 with 3:05 left in the first half before the Rockets made a response.
Lowellville reclaimed the lead at 27-25 with 34-seconds remaining in the frame following a three by Kyle Miller. But the Tigers’ Beau Brungard threw up a half-court shot at the halftime buzzer that found nothing but net, giving the Tigers a 30-27 lead at intermission.
“Against a good team like Springfield, in the first half I thought we played really good on defense, but then we didn’t do a good job of boxing out. A ton of their points came from second and third chances,” Rockets coach Matt Olson remarked.
The Tigers built a game-high 10-point, 40-30, advantage by the 2:48 mark of the third quarter, but that is when the Rockets proved that they wouldn’t go away quietly.
The Rockets closed the quarter with a 13-2 run to once again take the lead at 43-42 when Anthony Lucente converted a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“You don’t usually win games where you give up 12 three’s and they shoot that high of a percentage, so it was a testament to our kids that they found a way to overcome that kind of shooting,” Brink remarked.
When Lucente hit another three at the start of the fourth period to go up 46-42, it looked like the Rockets were on their way to seal the win. But the Tigers answered with an 8-0 run with Alex Rothwell converting a basket and free throw to make it 50-46 in the Tigers favor with 4:40 remaining in the game.
Vinny Ballone connected on a three with 2:07 left to make it 54-52, and then he hit a jumper with 1:12 left to tie the game at 54, setting up the dramatic ending.
“Our senior leadership was really the key down the stretch,” Brink said. “We have four guys averaging double-digits this season, all those guys contributed.”