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by Frank Aceto
Associate Sports Editor
Stow -- All season long, the Tallmadge boys basketball team has defied expectations.
The Blue Devils were coming off a six-win season.
They were still inexperienced.
And they had a plethora of injuries.
Nevertheless, Tallmadge stayed in the Suburban League race for much of the season and kept its Cinderella season alive with two dramatic victories in the tournament.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the wonderful fairy tale is over.
Fifth-seeded Tallmadge lost a 57-49 decision to top-seeded Cleveland Central Catholic March 5.
The Division II district semifinal contest took place at Stow-Munroe Falls High School's James G. Tyree Gymnasium. With the loss, the Blue Devils finished 14-10. It was their first trip to district play since the 2008-09 season.
At one point, things looked extremely bleak for Tallmadge as it fell behind 20-5 late in the first quarter.
But the game changed dramatically late in the fourth quarter.
With 41.3 seconds left, the Blue Devils cut their deficit to three (52-49) when sophomore point guard Justin Cambria found junior guard/forward Joseph Vassalotti for a layup.
But Cleveland Central Catholic forced a turnover and eventually sealed the game at the free throw line.
While it was a valiant comeback by Tallmadge, the game was ultimately lost in the first eight minutes. The Ironmen came out firing and led 15-3 in the first three-plus minutes of the game.
"I knew we were going to have to adjust to their [the Ironmen's] speed," Blue Devils' first-year head coach Mike Bluey said. "We don't see that kind of speed in our league and we don't practice against it. I was hoping we would adjust in a four-minute frame. But it took us a whole quarter to adjust to it."
Tallmadge scratched and clawed its way to within striking distance in the final minute. After being down 20-5, the Blue Devils responded with an 8-0 run.
"When we got a stop and scored at the beginning of the second quarter, I knew it was going to be a battle," Bluey said. "I knew we were going to make a game of it."
The Blue Devils held Cleveland Central Catholic (17-6) to just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting in the second quarter. Tallmadge also forced five turnovers in the period.
Alas for the Blue Devils, one of the Ironmen's three buckets turned out to be a critical score.
Tallmadge missed a layup and Cleveland Central Catholic scored the final bucket of the half despite missing four shots on one possession. Six-foot-9 junior Montel McRae finally tapped in the fifth shot attempt to give the Ironmen a 27-19 lead with less than 30 seconds left.
"We miss a layup and they [the Ironmen] got four offensive rebounds," Bluey said. "That was big. I'm not going to say you have to play perfectly, but you have to play really well against a team like that."
The Blue Devils kept coming back, though.
Trailing by as many as 13 (35-22) in the third quarter, senior guard Nate Bickar, who knocked down five 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 17 points, made it a seven-point game (38-31) when he buried a 3 for the final points of the period.
"That's what seniors do," Bluey said of Bickar. "You want your seniors to want the ball in the big games. Nate texted me earlier [March 5] and I knew he was ready to go. I know it hurts him now, but he had a great season."
Tallmadge went on a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter to make it a one-possession game (52-49). But the Blue Devils did not make another shot the rest of the way.
"I thought we dictated tempo, but you find yourself behind the eight-ball when you're not making buckets," Bluey said.
Tallmadge committed 19 turnovers, while Cleveland Central Catholic lost the ball 15 times. The Blue Devils had a chance to make some noise prior to the fourth quarter, but they missed a handful of shots from-point blank range.
Tallmadge also couldn't take advantage of the Ironmen's woeful foul shooting. Cleveland Central Catholic made just 11 of 28 shots from the charity stripe.
The Blue Devils were actually worse despite not getting much time at the line. They made just 1 of 5 shots.
Tervell Beck, a 6-7 sophomore, led the Ironmen with a game-high 19 points. Desmond Crosby had 13 points for Cleveland Central Catholic.
Also reaching double figures in scoring for the Ironmen were 6-5 junior Antwon Lillard (11) and McRae (10).
Junior forward Andrew Francesconi had 12 points for Tallmadge and junior guard Colten Stricker and Vassalotti added 11 and eight points, respectively.
"To come back like we did showed a lot of heart," Bluey said. "I just wish I had one more time-out left. The guys learned how to play against good teams. At this stage, the lights get a little brighter and we showed a lot of growth.
"We have a strong youth program and a ton of juniors coming back. It's fun to see the community support the program. We had big crowds in our last two home games. There's a lot of good things for this program in the future."
But Bluey will certainly miss Bickar and fellow seniors Niko Skeriotis and Damon Gidley, who missed most of the season with a shoulder injury.
"You want your seniors to provide great leadership whether they get a lot of minutes or not," Bluey said. "We didn't think Damon could come back, but he did. I know Niko wanted to play more, but he has been very supportive. I will definitely miss those three guys."