by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
Tallmadge -- It's still early in the season, but opposing teams are quickly learning something that probably never crossed their minds when the season began.
The Tallmadge boys basketball team is for real.
The Blue Devils improved to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Suburban League with a 71-58 victory over Nordonia Dec. 20 at Tallmadge High School's James O. Maddox Court.
It was Tallmadge's second consecutive win and the Blue Devils rallied from an early hole before eventually taking command in the third quarter.
Although the Knights scored the first 11 points of the game, Tallmadge first-year head coach Mike Bluey decided not to burn a time-out.
It turned out to be a brilliant move.
The Blue Devils went on a 28-10 run in the next several minutes.
"My kids had two days of finals, so they had a mental overload," Bluey said. "I think they were too anxious and too excited to a point that they were overprepared. I felt like the guys could play through it and they did."
Nordonia, the defending two-time Suburban League champion, which reached Division I regional play last season, regained the lead (38-36) when junior guard Alex Alders converted a difficult layup early in the third quarter.
Once again, Tallmadge didn't flinch.
The Blue Devils erupted for a 21-3 run to take a 57-41 advantage later in the period. Tallmadge never looked back the rest of the way.
"You have to give Tallmadge credit," Knights head coach Matt Cash said. "They play with a lot of discipline and coach Bluey has done a heck of a job. We're inexperienced. We only have three returning varsity players. We'll get better."
While Nordonia has become one of the area powerhouses in recent years, the Blue Devils had fallen on hard times.
And during those hard times, Tallmadge just simply struggled to learn how to win. If the game was close, it seemed like the Blue Devils found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
Again, it's still early, but maybe, just maybe those days are over. And here's the scary part: Bluey doesn't believe his team has come close to reaching its full potential.
"I don't think we're clicking at all," he said. "We still go through ugly phases when we're not moving the ball as well as we should."
Andrew Francesconi's offensive game doesn't need much fine-tuning.
The 6-foot-4 junior forward scored a game-high and season-high 32 points for Tallmadge. He did so with an array of post moves in traffic and difficult shots from short range with a number of hands in his face.
Francesconi also made a living at the free throw line. He canned 18 of 19 shots from the charity stripe.
"I was missing some open shots, but I was happy with the looks I was getting inside," Francesconi said.
While he did most of his damage near the basket and at the free throw line, Francesconi also did a masterful job of handling the ball and finding open teammates against the Knights' relentless fullcourt press.
"I try to do a little of everything," he said. "It feels really good to beat a team like this."
As Nordonia exploded out of the gates, the Blue Devils were missing a number of perimeter shots. And then Tallmadge decided to get the ball to Francesconi on the low block.
Just like that, everything was right again for Tallmadge.
"We missed a few threes and then we got the ball to Andrew and he scored our first bucket inside," Bluey said. "I think that allowed the guys to relax a bit and work out the kinks."
Francesconi certainly controlled the paint for the Blue Devils. And with Francesconi getting plenty of attention from a bevy of Nordonia defenders, junior guard Colten Stricker frustrated the Knights with his superior outside shooting.
Stricker knocked down four three-pointers on his way to a 22-point evening. He also scored a number of layups on an array of cuts to the basket. And when Stricker made those cuts, his teammates usually found him.
"Our guys have been Andrew, Colten and [senior guard] Nate Bickar," Bluey said. "We go where they go."
Sophomore guard Justin Cambria added 10 points off the bench for Tallmadge.
Not surprisingly, the Knights were led by their three returning players. Senior guard Eli Linder finished with a team-high 15 points and Alders and junior guard Max Hartman added 12 and nine points, respectively.
The Blue Devils also posted a 56-51 win in the junior varsity contest.
Tallmadge was scheduled to host Cuyahoga Falls Dec. 28. Results were not available at press time.
The Blue Devils are set to visit Suburban League rival Wadsworth Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m.