STOW -- The Stow-Munroe Falls boys basketball team has had a knack for making its fans a bit uneasy during long stretches of its games.

Well, the maroon and gold well-wishers will have to be on the edge of their seats for at least one more day.

That's because the Bulldogs are heading to a spot that has become all too familiar over the years.

That would be the district tournament.

Despite a huge scare from a scrappy opponent, fourth-seeded Stow advanced to the Copley Division I district semifinals after posting a come-from-behind 44-39 victory over sixth-seeded Granger Township Highland. The contest took place March 4 at James G. Tyree Gymnasium.

With the win, the Bulldogs earned a date with second-seeded Medina in a district semifinal game March 9 at Copley High School. The Bees advanced with a 64-53 win over 11th-seeded Nordonia.

Stow (18-5) trailed early, built a nine-point lead and then had to hold on for dear life in the end.

"We were a little casual late," longtime Bulldogs head coach Dave Close said. "We missed some shots and we probably missed four, five or six layup opportunities."

During a number of contests this season, Stow had its share of lapses.

On March 4, the Bulldogs had trouble finding their rhythm on both ends of the floor in the first eight-plus minutes and the Hornets led 19-11 early in the second quarter.

But Stow, thanks mainly to 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Evan Bainbridge, turned up the defensive pressure and took the lead later in the second period.

The Bulldogs outscored Highland 15-4 in the second quarter to take a 25-21 advantage into the locker room.

Suddenly, the Hornets, who showed good ball movement and a soft shooting touch in the first eight minutes, went completely cold the rest of the half. Highland made just 1-of-14 shots from the floor in the second quarter.

Bainbridge, due to his ability to rotate when the Highland guards penetrated, forced the Hornets to change their shots in midair. As a result, Highland had several one-and-done possessions.

"Our defense was solid," Close said. "We got burned on defense in the first quarter, but then we really focused on defensive rotations. As has been the case, it usually takes a quarter for our guys to get on the same page."

Bainbridge, who also had his best offensive performance of the season, continued to be a presence in the low post the rest of the way.

With Bainbridge lurking near the basket, the Hornets simply could not find their offense.

"We've all seen Evan's ability," Close said. "Maybe this was his coming-out party. He had a nice touch around the basket. They [the Hornets] are predominately a penetrating team and Evan was aggressive in his rotations."

Highland converted just 2-of-12 shots from the floor in the third period. Stow led 33-25 heading into the final eight minutes.

Nonetheless, the Hornets (13-11) still managed to make things interesting late.

In fact, thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers in the right corner by junior guard Collin Rittman and junior forward Ryan Frederick, the Bulldogs' lead was just one (39-38) with 2 minutes, 42 seconds left in the game.

Highland actually had a chance to take the lead, but Stow 6-8 junior forward Mason McMurray, who found himself in foul trouble for much of the game, came up with a huge steal with a little more than 90 seconds left.

Moments later, McMurray made it 41-38 with a putback and Bainbridge, who finished with a season-high and game-high 20 points, knocked down a free throw to make it a four-point game (42-38) with 33.8 seconds left.

Rittman then made 1-of-2 at the line with 13.4 remaining, but Bulldogs' senior point guard Jared Wright sealed the deal when he converted both ends of a one-and-one situation with 7.9 left. Wright's free throws made it 44-39.

Bainbridge found his stroke in the second quarter. He scored eight points in the period and had 10 points in the second half.

The sophomore standout made two 3-pointers, but he did most of his damage inside with a plethora of short bank shots and baby hooks.

Other than Bainbridge, Stow didn't have much scoring punch from the rest of the team.

McMurray finished with 7 points and senior guard Logan Lindsay and junior guard Coryon Rice contributed 6 and 5 points, respectively.

But the Hornets' shooting woes and costly turnovers on key possessions allowed the Bulldogs to escape.

Rittman led Highland with 15 points. Frederick added 8 points for the Hornets, who made 6-of-10 from the charity stripe.

Stow, which has been stellar from the free throw line throughout the season, had its second straight subpar game at the stripe. The Bulldogs made just 10-of-19 shots.

Stow received a bye in the opening round of the tournament and had to wait a week between games.

If Close had his way, he would have avoided taking a bye.

"Most years, we would have played," Close said. "This year, we didn't for a variety of reasons. There is something about first-game jitters. You want to get it out of your system since you're starting the season over."


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