MACEDONIA — Heading into his first game as Nordonia head boys basketball coach, Dominique Sanders admitted the contest would be "awkward" for him.
The reason: Sanders was facing Mayfield head coach Bob Pacsi, who was Sanders’ coach during his days at Twinsburg, when the Wildcats visited Hugh Griffith Gymnasium Saturday.
If Sanders thought he felt awkward heading into the contest, Pacsi admitted after the game he would have preferred Sanders had taken a job with another school — so Pacsi wouldn’t have to coach against his former player.
"Dominique is going to have a great year and a great career," Pacsi said. "He has kids that know how to play hard."
However, as Nordonia assistant coach Don Jones — who used to be Pasci’s assistant — noted, "The old bull got the new bull this time."
Nordonia nearly rallied from a 17-point deficit in the third quarter, but the Knights’ inability to hit free throws in the fourth quarter allowed Mayfield to pull away late. The Wildcats scored a 53-41 win in the season opener for both teams.
Sanders noted it wasn’t hard to see why the Knights lost the contest, as Nordonia was just 10-of-22 from the free-throw line, compared to 12-of-18 by the Wildcats.
"We have to show that we can hit free throws," Sanders said. "Another thing was, we didn’t get any points tonight from our starting backcourt. That has to change. Offensively, we looked very stagnant tonight."
Sanders noted the effort was there for the Knights for the entire contest, but offensive execution was not.
"The story of this game was simple: Missed free throws and layups," he said. "We’ve got to get back at it."
Both teams came out with high energy, but low scoring. Twinsburg effectively clogged the middle and shut down the Knights’ inside offense, collapsing on senior forward Robert Watson every time he touched the ball.
"That’s Pacsi defense," Sanders said. "They did a good job sticking with their defensive principles, no matter what the situation was in the game."
Watson finished with nine rebounds in the game, but only three points, as he went 1-of-8 from the line.
Nordonia’s defense was equally solid in the first quarter, as the game was tied at 10-10 after eight minutes.
The Wildcats opened the second quarter, however, on a 13-2 run, keyed by starting guards Michael Favazzo and Blake Martinich. Favazzo led all scorers with 15 points in the game, while Matinich added 12 points.
If not for some nice interior work from Nordonia reserve forward Clay McMillan, the Knights would have fallen further behind. McMillan scored all nine of his points in the first half, but Nordonia trailed 27-17 at the half.
Mayfield looked in danger of running away with the game midway through the third quarter, as a 6-0 run gave the Wildcats a 37-20 lead with 3:41 left in the third.
Led by its bench, however, the Knights began a furious comeback.
The bright spot of the game for Nordonia was the play of senior reserve guard Owen Licht. Licht keyed 13-0 run for the Knights by completing two straight and-one situations.
First, Licht hit a layup. was fouled and converted the free throw. On the next possession, Licht hit a three-pointer in the corner and fouled. When he converted that free throw, Nodonia had trimmed the lead to 37-33 just before the end of third quarter.
Based on his play Saturday, Sanders said Licht might not be a reserve guard for much longer.
"Owen is a kid who, from the start, has shown he’s always ready for us," Sanders said. "He’s a real team player. That guy is showing me he deserves some minutes."
A three-pointer by Licht allowed Nordonia to cut the deficit to 39-38 with 6:30 left in the game. Licht led Nordonia with 11 points.
However, the Knights were never able to seize the lead, as they were unable to capitalize on a string of trips to the free-throw line. Nordonia went 5-of-13 from the line in the final eight minutes.
Meanwhile, a three-pointer from Favazzo with under two minutes left seemed to be the knockout blow for Nordonia. Mayfield was able to hit enough free throws down the stretch to ice the game.
Sanders said he knew things won’t get easier this week for the Knights, as Nordonia was set to travel to Green Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
If Saturday was a bit awkward for Sanders, he admitted thing will get "very awkward" Friday, as the Knights will open Suburban League National Conference play by traveling to his alma mater. Nordonia heads to Twinsburg Friday at 7:30 p.m.