NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Nothing beats small school basketball on a Friday night. The Lowellville Rockets scored an exciting basket at the buzzer to nip arch-rival Springfield 51-49 to remain one game behind the league-leading McDonald Blue Devils.
With the win, the Rockets improve to 14-2 overall on the season, and 10-1 in the MVAC. The Tigers drop to 9-6, 7-5 in conference play.
With the game knotted at 49 apiece and the Rockets with possession of the ball, Rockets guard Matt Hvisdak brought the ball across half court with less than 20 seconds remaining. The Tigers sat back in a 2-3 zone while Hvisdak waited to under 6 seconds remaining before he drove and penetrated the Tigers defense.
“We told them if they are in a zone we were going to run a specific play and if they were in man we were going to go four corners with Matt Hvisdak in the middle and just let him create. We put Matt in the middle and let him make a decision,” Rockets coach Matt Olson explained.
“When I came up I was thinking everybody got out of the middle. They gave me the drive right through the middle,” Hvisdak added.
As Hzisdak drove, he dished the ball off to his cousin Nate Solak. The ball was tipped by a Tiger player, but not enough that Solak couldn’t grab it and throw up a shot from under the left side of the basket as the buzzer rang, sending the visiting Rockets and their fans into elation.
“Once I got through those first two defenders in the 2-3, I had the option to either float it up or kick it out. I was going to go up and then I saw out of the corner of my eye Nate coming and just dished it off,” Hvisdak described his assist.
“Matt always does a good job of beating his guy so I knew he was going to beat him. I was waiting to creep in at the last second. Once Matt beat him I just crept in and the ball was tipped but it found me,” Solak added.
The winning basket was set up after the Rockets Jake Rotz connected on a basket with just 1:25 remaining in the contest to tie the game up. The two teams exchanged the lead eight times in the fourth quarter before Solak’s bucket at the end of the contest.
It appeared that the Rockets were going to win in a more handily fashion early on in the contest as they raced out to a 14-7 lead, and held a 17-10 lead at the conclusion of the first quarter. But the Tigers roared back as they tied the game at 27 when Tigers senior John Ritter hit the first of two foul shots at the 1:47 mark. He would also convert the second shot which gave the Tigers a 28-27 lead at the intermission.
The Tigers switched from playing man-to-man defense to start the game, to go into the 2-3 zone which caused the Rockets to try to hit from the outside. While the Rockets hit only 3 of 13 shots from the floor, the Tigers started to pour the ball inside to their two big men in Shane Eynon and Ritter helping them to come back in the game.
“They are tough,” Tigers coach Steven French said of his two big men Eynon and Ritter. “They do anything we ask. They battled inside and it was a tough man’s game in there today.”
“It was a lot more physical than I expected,” Rockets Alex Mamula-Zarlingo admitted of the play. “We were preparing for this all week at practice obviously because they have two big guys and they have two big guys. I just know if Jake (Rotz) and I played our game we would be fine in the end.”
“We played some zone against them the first time with some success. Not the 2-3, but we thought we could go back and mix it up a little bit, and it worked,” French remarked. “We slowed them down. It was a good defensive effort.”
The two teams battled back and forth starting the second half as the Rockets went ahead 31-30 at the 6:09 mark of the third period following an amazing behind his back, no-look pass from Hvisdak to Joe Ballone who hit an uncontested layup. But unfortunately for the Rockets, their key big man inside Jake Rotz picked up his fourth foul, causing him to sit for several minutes of the game.
“They started getting second chance rebounds, offensive rebounds that hurt us. That’s where they got a lot of their points,” Olson remarked. “We need Jake and Alex in the game, especially against this team since they are as big as we are.”
“At that point, I was thinking, for the most part, don’t go up for a shot but then again don’t give them an easy layup. I’d rather they shot free throws then easy layups,” Mamula-Zarlingo said.
When Eynon converted two foul shots at the 1:17 mark of the third quarter, the Tigers held a 4-point, 38-34 lead at the end of the third stanza. That set up the thrilling final period with the two teams battling back and forth.
On the night, Solak led the Rockets in the scorebook with 13 points while Alex Mamula-Zarlingo added 12. Mamula-Zarlingo also had a dominating night on the boards as he grabbed 11 caroms.
The Tigers were led by John Ritter with a game-high 19 points, while Evan Ohlin and Drew Clark each contributed 10 points apiece. Ritter led the Tigers in rebounds as he grabbed 10.
“If we play our best basketball we feel that we can compete with anybody”, Olson said of his team after the victory.