Firelands made sure of it Tuesday night, using a patient, methodical offense and fantastic man-to-man defense to down Buckeye 43-37.
The win put the Falcons (10-8, 8-5) into a first-place tie in the division with the Bucks (11-6, 8-5), who could have taken a two-game lead with three to play.
“We didn’t think it was a must win, but we talked about it being an important game for us in the conference,” Firelands coach Brett Bartlett said. “We control everything now.”
The Bucks, who basically could have clinched at least a tie for the title with a victory since one of their remaining games is against Black River, which has lost 37 straight, lost on the road for the third straight Tuesday.
“Early on, we were timid,” Buckeye coach Matt Saunders said. “Instead of attacking the moment, we were feeling it out.”
Firelands, which lost the teams’ first meeting 53-50, controlled the tempo throughout. The Falcons almost completely eliminated Buckeye’s transition game, then played exceptional defense once they had slowed down the Bucks.
“One of our keys was getting back on defense,” Bartlett said. “If we do that and eliminate easy baskets, we play pretty good defense in the half court.”
That’s an understatement, as Buckeye went scoreless for the first 4:53 and had just seven points in the first quarter, then struggled even more in a six-point third period.
Power forward Jeff Miller led the Bucks with 12 points and seven boards but didn’t get nearly enough touches, in part because of Firelands’ terrific defense and in part because the Bucks chucked way too many long jumpers.
Mike Bacho added 10 points and five boards off the bench, but he would have had a lot more if any of his half-dozen 3-point attempts had fallen. No other Buckeye player had more than five points.
“We had some rattle in and out, but that’s going to happen,” Saunders said. “Offensively, I thought we settled for jump shots instead of getting the ball inside. We weren’t playing to our strengths tonight.”
Firelands was no work of art at the offensive end, either, but it did enough right to stay slightly ahead for most of the second half, then used an 8-0 run to go up 39-28 with 2:47 to go.
The last four points in that mini-spurt came after Bartlett went to a delay game midway through the fourth period. Largely because Buckeye was forced to foul, the Falcons went 6-for-11 at the line in the final period when they scored 16 points after getting just eight in each of the first two periods.
“All seven guys that played contributed in some way,” Bartlett said. “They’re playing with some confidence.”
The best player on the court was Falcons center Joe Hyster, who led his team in scoring (11), rebounds (nine) and assists (three).
The key, though, was Firelands’ defense against Miller, who was coming off a career-high 27 points Friday against Wellington, and Garrett Beck, who came in averaging 14.6 points but managed only five against the Falcons.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Firelands 43, Buckeye 37
BUCKEYE (37): Matt Cox 2-0-5, Jeff Miller 4-4-12, Chris Vogt 1-0-2, Garrett Beck 2-0-5, Cory Inman 0-0-0, Mike Bacho 5-0-10, Ryan Grauel 1-1-3, Curtis Kinney 0-0-0, John Tighe 0-0-0, Nick Prest 0-0-0. Totals 15-5-37.
FIRELANDS (43): Casey Smith 3-1-7, Logan Sittinger 3-4-10, Joe Hyster 4-3-11, Cole Sklarek 1-3-5, Nick Bauer 2-1-6, Jimmy Willbond 0-0-0, Brett Helton 2-0-4. Totals 15-12-43.
Buckeye 7 11 16 13 — 37
Firelands 8 8 11 6 — 43