Coming off a stinging overtime loss at Strasburg earlier in the week, both the Hawks and the Tigers needed to win to keep pace with the other at the top of the Inter-Valley Conference.
Strasburg had the tougher test of the two, playing on the road at Sandy Valley to face the physical Cardinals, while Hiland hosted the Tuscarawas Central Catholic Saints Friday night in Berlin. Both survived, as the IVC race will be determined in the final week of the season.
The Hawks held off a pesky Saints squad, as they threatened to blow the game wide open in the middle quarters, only to see TCC come storming back to within six with under a minute to play.
Through a very deliberate beginning, the game was knotted at 7 with under 2:00 left in the first quarter when the game loosened up a bit and the Hawks opened a 15-12 lead after one.
The second period saw Hiland’s guard play begin to take its toll on the Saints, as the pressure forced numerous rushed shots and turnovers as Hiland rolled to a 25-13 halftime advantage.
After starting the game extremely well defensively, Hiland’s defense fell out of sync after the break. With the defense being the engine for its offense, the Hawks also stumbled at the other end as well.
The third quarter brought with it a sense of Hiland’s focus on this evening, as an early push brought TCC back to within 29-23 which seemed to jolt the Hawks back into a state of reality.
“We didn’t talk very well tonight,” said Hiland head coach Mark Schlabach. “They started off the second half with nine points in the first four possessions. We switched off guys and switched late…we just really haven’t done that all year.”
But the Hawks responded in a big way.
Hiland would answer with a huge run of its own, rallying behind two Turner Horn threes and another score to bolt to a 39-23 bulge, and headed to the fourth with a seemingly insurmountable 43-27 advantage.
But again, the Hawks would lose focus and the Saints marched right back into the game by moving the ball and hitting the boards. Hiland’s usual textbook, pressure defense began to show cracks on the perimeter as it overextended, and the Hawks paid the price by opening up the lane and surrendering layups, with three consecutive trips up the floor surrendering offensive boards for the Saints.
“We got back into a pretty good flow and built up a nice lead with a chance to put them away, but didn’t do it,” said Schlabach. “It was two games in a row we didn’t finish very well.”
Even with the defensive breakdown, Hiland still led by no less than nine points right up to the 1:00 mark in the fourth. But the Saints wouldn’t go away, and a couple turnovers and a missed front end of a 1-and-1 by the Hawks allowed a TCC three make it a 48-42 game with only 48 seconds left in the game. But a pair of free throws by Scott Troyer and a steal and two freebies by Andy Miller sealed it to give Hiland a 54-42 win.
While the Hawks were having some issues with consistency, the Saints were showing their mettle, taking advantage of opportunities and clawing their way back into the game with hustle, execution and some opportune shooting from long range.
“We wanted to alleviate pressure, so we made some halftime adjustments,” said TCC mentor Tyrone Miller.” The adjustments we made allowed us to get the ball into the half-court, where we felt like we could execute, and we got some really good looks.”
The ball movement and an uncharacteristically overextended Hiland defense allowed the Saints to hurt the Hawks inside.
“When we moved well and their defense wasn’t stationary, it allowed us to get to the glass,” said Miller. “I think we had seven offensive rebounds in the second half, and I thought it was key, because that stick-back either led to a shot or a foul, so the adjustment at halftime really helped.”
But the Hawks answered the bell at every push, and when it came to crunch time, they did what they needed to do to get a big conference win to stay even with Strasburg at the top of the IVC.
“We kept commenting on the bench that we were lacking focus tonight,” said Schlabach. “It showed in our turnovers and the little things defensively that we’ve been good at all year just weren’t there tonight.”
But the grind of a long season was not lost on Schlabach.
“It’s hard, but our guys have done a great job all year,” he said. “They’ve played hard. We’ve gotten better as the season’s gone on, but we could use a day or two off here. We’re in a good spot with a week between our games. We control our own destiny, both in league and then in tournament, so hopefully we can make a good run.”
Nick Sciaretti was the only Saints player in double digits with 12, while Turner Horn and Andy Miller teamed up to drive Hiland with 17 and 15 points respectively.
Hiland has two league contests remaining, with a makeup game with Newcomerstown and a showdown with Garaway in Sugarcreek looming to lock down at least a piece of the IVC title.