AKRON -- The Tallmadge boys basketball team had a strong ending to its regular season with four wins in its last five games.
And which team handed the Blue Devils their lone loss during that stretch?
That would be Buchtel, which posted a 71-65 victory over Tallmadge Feb. 21 at James O. Maddox Court.
The Griffins happened to be the Blue Devils' first opponent in postseason play.
Sadly, they turned out to be Tallmadge's only postseason opponent.
The sixth-seeded Blue Devils' season came to an end after they suffered a 74-61 defeat to second-seeded Buchtel in a Canton Division II sectional title game. The contest took place March 3 at the John R. Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron.
With the win, the Griffins improved to 18-5 and advanced to district play. Tallmadge finished 13-9 and saw its season come to a premature conclusion in sectional play for the second consecutive year.
The Blue Devils made a furious rally to get within striking distance after trailing by as many as 12 in the first half.
But Tallmadge had ball-handling issues, free-throw issues and rebounding issues throughout the evening.
As a result, Buchtel got many second-chance opportunities thanks to its ability to track down loose balls on a regular basis.
"We didn't rebound the ball again," Blue Devils head coach Mike Bluey said. "That was the biggest difference in the first game and it proved to be the difference [March 3]. It put us in such a big hole."
Despite all of its struggles to stay with the talented, athletic and lightning-fast Griffins, Tallmadge actually had some momentum on its side heading into the fourth quarter.
The Blue Devils, who trailed 34-22 at halftime, closed the third period on a 13-4 run to cut their deficit to a deuce (44-42).
The spurt was capped by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from the left corner by junior guard Matthew Francesconi off an assist from junior guard Jake Rensel.
Unfortunately for Tallmadge, it never got closer. In fact, the Blue Devils didn't have a chance the rest of the way.
Tallmadge had no answer for Aamir Solomon.
The standout Buchtel junior guard, who had zero points and play limited minutes due to foul trouble in the first half, ruthlessly crushed any life the Blue Devils had after their stellar third quarter.
Solomon scored 14 of his team-high 21 points in the final eight minutes.
He scored the first six points of the quarter. Two of those buckets were extremely difficult shots in traffic with plenty of hands in his face.
Later in the period, Solomon delivered the exclamation point when he knocked down a no-hesitation 3-pointer from the left side.
That soul-crushing dagger gave the Griffins a 62-49 lead and it all but locked up a berth in district play for Buchtel.
"We had a really good third quarter to cut it to two," Bluey said. "We had too many unforced turnovers. We had an unforced turnover to start the fourth quarter. We gave up too many rebounds. That's not how you win tournament basketball games."
Solomon's clutch performance overshadowed the heroics of Tallmadge's star player, who had a game for the ages.
Francesconi, the Blue Devils' leading scorer and playmaker, single-handedly kept his team in the game by draining a variety of jumpers from just about everywhere on the court.
Francesconi, who finished with a game-high and career-high 38 points, buried five 3-pointers and was 9-of-13 from the free throw line. He outscored the Griffins by himself in the third quarter (16-10) and was in attack mode throughout the evening.
"Matthew was just phenomenal," Bluey said. "He continued to provide opportunities for us to get back in the game.
"That's the Matt we hope shows up game in and game out as a senior. If he does that, he's going to have an awful lot of opportunities to play at the next level."
Despite Buchtel's advantages in height, quickness and athleticism, Tallmadge showed no fear early in the game.
The Blue Devils stormed out of the gates to take an 8-2 advantage as the Griffins had some issues with turnovers.
However, Buchtel responded with a 7-0 run to take the lead for good as Tallmadge struggled with the Griffins' swarming pressure defense. And if the Blue Devils had a shot that found iron, Buchtel usually located the ball and proceeded at a breakneck pace.
Nonetheless, the Griffins had their issues, too.
Several Buchtel players were in foul trouble and Tallmadge was in the double-bonus situation less than halfway into the second quarter.
Despite all of the free opportunities, the Blue Devils struggled with their shooting touch and were ineffective at the free throw line. Tallmadge also committed 12 turnovers in the first half.
While Francesconi was unstoppable for much of the game, he didn't get enough support from his teammates.
Junior guard/forward Zach Boyd added 9 points for the Blue Devils and sophomore guard Sam Seeker and senior guard Josh Taylor each had 6 points.
The Griffins, on the other hand, had plenty of scoring punch from a number of players.
Six-foot-4 senior forward Tariq Vinson scored 16 points and guards Justin Craig, a senior, and Chris Robinson, a junior, added 10 and 9 points, respectively, for Buchtel.
Neither team was particularly sharp from the charity stripe. Tallmadge made just 12-of-22 from the foul line and Buchtel finished 14-of-26. The Blue Devils had a 7-4 edge in 3-pointers, but the Griffins made 24 2-point field goals compared to just 14 for Tallmadge, which also missed a number of shots from point-blank range.
The loss certainly didn't sit well with Bluey, but the Blue Devils head coach had no qualms regarding his team's effort.
"I'm happy for our guys," Bluey said. "They battled. There are a lot of things to be proud of, but we have to get better."
Bluey said goodbye to Taylor and fellow seniors Julius Lee (point guard), Drew Stauffer (forward) and Jimmy Tucci (guard), who suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason.
"All of them are really good teammates," Bluey said. "They are guys you want in the locker room and they care about the program. They took pride in the way we play.
"I'm really happy for them. I really believe they will be successful when they leave Tallmadge High School and they are always welcome to come back."