STOW — Seeing a program improve year over year is the goal of every coach.

Cuyahoga Falls girls basketball coach Joe Novak has seen that growth during his eight-year tenure with Black Tigers. 

However, while Falls has improved, Novak has always had to deal with the specter of arch rival Stow-Munroe Falls, which has risen to the level of the state’s elite over the last decade. Falls has not beaten Stow since the early 2000s.

On Wednesday at the James G. Tyree Gymnasium, it looked like the drought might finally end for the Black Tigers.

In the heartbeat, however, an unlikely hero for Stow stepped up to give the Bulldogs the victory. 

Junior guard Krista McDowell used a backdoor cut to hit a layup with three seconds left, giving Stow a 34-33 win over Falls.

Stow remained unbeaten in the Suburban League National Conference, improving to 7-0 in the conference and 10-1 overall. Falls dropped to 7-4, 4-3 in the conference.

Stow coach Bob Podges notes the win showed the depth of his team.

"We’re fortunate to have a lot of player who can play a lot of positions," Podges said. "I have faith in all of my players. Krista McDowell would be a big-time starter on a lot of teams.

"As I said to them in the locker room, with no disrespect to anyone, when you’re in games like this and its gets hot, you need to have that repetition in practice" he added. "We haven’t had a full team at practice in a long time."

Novak noted the loss was tough to swallow.

"It’s heartbreaking," Novak said. "I think that we’re genuinely close [to Stow]. I think tonight shows that we’re able to play, not only with them, but with anybody on our schedule."

Stow was without starting forward Bella Adams due to a hamstring injury and Podges noted nearly his entire squad was dealing with illness.

"It’s hard," McDowell said of her teammates’ struggles. "Hopefully, we can everybody back next week."

"No one is going to have any sympathy for us," Podges said.

Early on, things seemed to be going according to plan for Stow. The Bulldogs’ pack-line defense held Falls to just five points in the first quarter — all from guard Raygan Corrigall.

Foul trouble was a big issue for Falls in the first half, as Stow attempted to pound the ball inside. Stow sophomore Kristin Chmilewksi moved into the forward spot with Adams out and scored nine of her team-high 11 points in the first half.

Up 12-5 after one quarter, Stow failed to take advantage of Falls’ foul issues in the second quarter. Stow shot just 5-of-14 from the free throw line in the first half — and did not take a foul shot in the second half. 

In the first half. the battle between two teams stars was a wash, as Falls senior Chelsea Huffman and Stow junior Lilee Carlson held each other without a field goal.

With Falls down 17-11 at the half, however, Huffman asserted herself in the third quarter.

Huffman helped Falls open the second half on a 7-1 run, as she hit her only field goals of the game in the third quarter. She also outscored Stow from the line herself, going of 11-of-14 on free throws she finished with a game-high 15 points.

Also, Falls used a 2-3 trapping zone defense that seemed to take Stow out of its offense in the third.

"It’s something that we worked on," Novak said. "It’s a good way to use our athleticism and challenge them on the perimeter."

A three-pointer from Falls’ Leila Smith gave Falls its first lead at 23-22 at the end of the three quarters.

Falls had the lead through much of the fourth quarter, but Carlson hit a pair of long three-pointers midway through fourth, insuring Falls never led by more than one possession.

"Those were big shots," Podges said.

With game tied 32-32 in the last minute, Huffman was fouled with 30 seconds left. With Falls in the double bonus, she made the first free throw, but had the second rim out on her and Stow grabbed the rebound.

After Podges called his final timeout with 20.2 seconds left, Fall committed two fouls and Novak called his final two timeouts, setting up the final sequence with 6.2 seconds left.

"We were trying to force them away from the basket," Novak said. "We were concentrating on [Stow forward] Kira [Philpot]. We wanted to keep the ball out of Kira’s hands."

"It’s a play we hadn’t run before," Podges said. "We ran Kira down the middle and sent two people on the cut."

When two Falls players jumped out at Carlson, McDowell found herself wide open on the back door.

"I don’t even know what I was thinking," McDowell said. "I just shot it."

Stow guard Ellie McCoy hit the inbounds pass and McDowell hit the wide-open layup with 3 seconds left. With Falls out of timeouts, the Black Tigers were unable to ball over half court before time expired."

Stow is set to travel to Brecksville-Broadview Heights Saturday at 2:30 p.m. while Falls will travel to North Royalton Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, or @MLeonard_GHO