CUYAHOGA FALLS — For a number of years, the Cuyahoga Falls girls basketball team didn’t make much of a case when it came to hanging banners in its gymnasium.
With the imposing Suburban League National Conference being as daunting as ever, those glorious moments will be stored away in the basement for at least another year.
Nonetheless, the Black Tigers’ turnaround has been quite a revelation.
Host Falls reached double digits in wins for the third consecutive season after scoring a gritty 61-59 victory over Suburban League crossover rival Tallmadge Saturday at Coach Tom Jones Court.
With the win, the Black Tigers improved to 10-9 overall and have no plans to rest on their laurels as postseason play lurks closer on their tail.
"We look to get a couple more before the tournament starts," seventh-year Falls head coach Joe Nowak said. "I think we’re building in the right direction."
The Black Tigers certainly have much more swagger to them in recent years. But that doesn’t mean they are immune to dangerous spells of vulnerability.
Falls, thanks mainly to its defense and its work on the glass, had the Blue Devils staggering in the early stages of the game.
Feasting on numerous offensive rebounds, the Black Tigers knocked around Tallmadge rather viciously by taking a 25-10 lead.
However, the Black Tigers, who have been fighting valiantly to rid themselves of a plague that has tortured them for more than a decade, still have much difficulty appreciating their newfound prosperity.
In fact, as on many occasions, Falls nearly lost all of its blessings in the blink of an eye.
When junior guard Jordyn Severns converted a layup off the dribble early in the fourth period, the Black Tigers inexplicably saw themselves facing a three-point deficit (48-45).
Same old Falls, right?
Not this time.
The Black Tigers overcame their shaky shooting by crawling through the mud to find salvation.
After high-scoring junior guard Chelsea Huffman drained a jumper to give Falls a 58-53 advantage with less than three minutes left, that salvation was found.
"It’s a resilient group," Nowak said. "A couple of years ago, this probably was an opportunity or a game where the other team would pull away eventually.
"We have a resilient mindset both on and off the floor. With that resilience and that energy I think we can bring, we’re finding ways to be successful."
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, weren’t the least bit interested in Falls’ rags-to-riches’ narrative.
Led by junior guard Lizzie Bickar, Tallmadge managed to stay within striking distance despite massive foul trouble.
Bickar, Severns and junior forward Jill Catalano were forced to keep their hands to themselves as they racked up fouls in a heartbeat.
In the end, though, this dilemma turned out to be a rather innocuous one for the Blue Devils.
Bickar, who didn’t leave the floor despite her unsettling foul situation, trimmed the Black Tigers’ advantage to a deuce (59-57) with a coast-to-coast, left-handed layup as the clock got close to the one-minute mark.
But this once eternally downtrodden Falls’ squad refused to bow down and surrender.
The Black Tigers converted a free throw on their next possession and got the game-changing defensive play they needed when sophomore guard Emma Brustoski got a steal.
"We buckled down when we needed to," Nowak said.
Alas for Falls, though, it still couldn’t quite shake its letdown addiction.
Up 61-59, the Black Tigers misfired on a pair of free throws with 14.8 seconds left.
Fortunately, Falls defended its basket with intensity.
Bickar, who scored a game-high 22 points, launched a shot in heavy traffic that found iron. As the ball bounced around from hand to hand in the aftermath, the clock mercifully ran out of seconds for the weary Black Tigers.
"For us to be able to bounce back after giving up a big lead and be able to hang on in the end is another opportunity for us to build confidence," Nowak said. "At the same time, we realize that we can take a team’s best shot and still rebound."
Despite his team’s sunnier days in recent years, Nowak certainly remembers the humongous dark cloud that hovered over his often timorous program.
On Saturday, his persistent players proved they could take the initiative when their backs were pressed against a much-too-familiar wall.
"It’s a reflection of the commitment, the effort and the resiliency this group has put in for a long time now," Nowak said. "We’re finally seeing the results."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.