AKRON — For the Tallmadge boys basketball team, it was the start of a new era. For Woodridge, it was about showing its experience could overcome a lack of height.
Saturday at the Joe Siegferth Basketball Classic, both teams showed they can be successful this season.
The Blue Devils nearly rallied twice from double-digit deficits, but the Bulldogs held their nerve down the stretch to win 69-66 at Akron Firestone High School. The game was the season opener for both squads.
Woodridge got nine or more points from five different players, as Bulldogs head coach Ric Blevins was generally happy with his team.
"They did a good job of making us go sideline to sideline in the second quarter and at the end of the game," Blevins said. "When we were able to go downhill, we did a very good job."
"I have a great passing team. There was a lot we can learn from this game, but it’s a lot easier to teach those lessons when you’re winning."
The game marked Bill Johnson’s debut as Tallmadge’s head boys basketball coach. The former Blue Devils girls basketball coach loved his team’s efforts.
"That’s what showed here the most," Johnson said. "We came out of here with a loss and that’s disappointing, but to come back twice being down double digits shows a lot of heart with this team."
"Everybody has free reign. We are frantic at times. There’s a lot we can take away from this game."
The contest ebbed and flowed as both teams tried to establish their style. Woodridge’s disciplined half-court game — and solid shooting — allowed the Bulldogs to take the lead early, as senior guards DJ Snyder and Michael Massey each hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter.
Massey led Woodridge with 18 points and Snyder had nine points, as the Bulldogs led 18-8 after one quarter.
However, in the second quarter, Tallmadge let loose its pressing and trapping defenses — and senior Nick Hussing.
After Woodridge sophomore Josh Decker hit a 3-pointer to make it 21-11 early in the second quarter, Hussing keyed a 16-4 run to give the Blue Devils the lead.
Hussing scored 13 of his game-high 28 points in the second quarter.
"Nick is a kid that was injured a bit last year," Johnson said. "He has free reign. You can see his game is getting steals and getting to the basket."
With the game tied 29-29 at the half, the Bulldogs were able to slow the place again midway through the third quarter. Woodridge pushed its lead back up to double digits with a 9-0 run to end the quarter.
Senior Jabron Driskill keyed the run by scoring seven straight points, including a running 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer to make it 54-42 after three. Driskill finished with nine points.
"I don’t have a selfish player on this team," Blevins said. "To a man, they would say, if they wanted to score 38 points or win the game, all of them would want to win the game."
The Blue Devils tried to rally again, but the Bulldogs looked to be doing an effective job of killing the clock, as Woodridge still led 67-57 with less than two minutes left.
It was then that Tallmadge switched to a full-court press and started making things interesting.
A 3-pointer from Brandon Heigelmann was followed by Sean Ambrose being fouled while shooting a three. After Ambrose made 2 of 3 free throws, Hussing stole the ball and hit a layup, cutting it to 67-66 with 47.5 seconds left.
After stealing the ball, Tallmadge called timeout again, but it threw the ball off the backboard on its next possession.
"That’s just inexperience at the varsity level," Johnson said "This is a perfect game for us to work from. They’ve got shooters and they’ve got five or six guys who know how to win games like this."
On a senior-heavy team, it was the Bulldogs’ youngest player — Decker — who hit both ends of a one and one to ice the game.
The Blue Devils had one last chance to tie it, but Jake Gardella’s long 3-pointer at the buzzer fell short of the mark.
Woodridge got 11 points from Decker, while senior forward Elijah Arnett had 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Bulldogs.
Heigelmann finished with 17 points, while center Dan Kurko had six points and nine rebounds for Tallmadge.
Both teams are scheduled to next play their respective home openers. Tallmadge is set to host Akron Ellet Tuesday at 7 p.m., while Woodridge plays host to Ravenna Friday at 7 p.m.