CUYAHOGA HEIGHTS, Ohio—Nobody saw this coming. Not in a million years.
Seemingly on a roll after defeating strong squads from Kirtland and Columbia and pushing Chagrin Valley Conference Valley Division champion Richmond Heights in a two-point loss, Cuyahoga Heights appeared primed to repeat last year’s tournament ride to the Division IV district finals.
The first step in that process was a first-round game in which the fifth-seeded Redskins would host Ashland Mapleton, the 12th seed. Cuyahoga Heights entered the game with a record of 14-7, compared to 5-17 for the Mounties.
But, as the cliché goes, this is why the game isn’t played on paper.
In a game that featured huge runs by both teams and then a possible game-winning shot at the buzzer, Cuyahoga Heights was stunned on its own floor, 49-48, to bring the season to an abrupt end.
“The frustrating part is, when you’re experienced, you know better,” Cuyahoga Heights coach Mike Tartara said. “You’re prepared for these types of moments. But when you’re a kid, you’re not. You expect to win, and that’s the beauty of being a kid. As you get older you realize that it’s good to be confident, but you also have to respect your opponent. At any moment, if you’re not prepared, these things can happen. It breaks my heart because I know how hard these kids have worked.”
The Redskins appeared to have the game in hand, taking a 41-29 lead into the fourth quarter. Mapleton led for most of the first half, using a 20-5 run to build a 22-10 lead early in the second quarter. Cuyahoga Heights fought back to cut the halftime margin to four, 24-20.
The third quarter was a different story, as the Redskins upped the intensity, controlled the boards and got out and ran. With senior Nassiem Salem scoring nine points and Ryan Selig adding six, the hosts put a 21-5 hurting on the Mounties, building the big lead at the end of the third quarter.
“We rebounded the ball really well and got out before they could set up their zone,” Tartara said. “I was really proud of the defensive effort in that quarter. We call it a Redskin quarter if we hold a team under 10 points and we did that. There’s a number of different things that were working during that quarter.”
But just when the Redskins appeared to have things straightened out, they returned to the same funk that plagued them in the first half. They lost their offensive flow in an attempt to force Mapleton out of its 2-3 zone.
While Cuyahoga Heights was slowing things down, the Mounties put on a 15-1 run to come all the way back and take the lead, 44-42.
“We could have been more patient, but we shot a couple of threes and we had a couple turnovers,” Tartara said. “I was almost happy they went zone because of the foul situation. But I didn’t want to use a timeout to tell them that. Obviously, if I could go back in time, I probably should have. We shot two or three quick threes in that stretch, they got an and-one and another three, and all of a sudden, it’s a two-possession game, and now you really can’t hold the ball.”
Austin Sanders, Mapleton’s 6-foot-6 center, scored eight of his 11 points in the final period and Adam Shadd scored nine of his game-high 25. It was a 3-pointer from the top of the key by Shadd that put the Mounties back in front by two with 3:16 to play, 44-42.
The teams went back and forth until Salem split two free throws to tie the score at 46 with 1:38 to play. Twenty-five seconds later, Mapleton freshman Cameron Sloter hit the shot of the game, a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner, giving the Mounties a 49-46 lead with 1:13 remaining.
Things got sloppy from there, as Cuyahoga Heights missed a pair of shots only to have Mapleton turn the ball back over twice against the Redskins’ diamond press. Selig hit a layup with 29 seconds to go, and Sanders then missed the front end of a one-and-one with 17 seconds to play, setting up what could have been a Hollywood finish.
Cuyahoga Heights junior Curtis Davis missed a 3-pointer with 5 seconds left, but teammate Sam Shafer got the offensive rebound. After a timeout, the Redskins got the ball into Salem’s hands and after a couple of dribbles he launched a 3-pointer from just to the right of the top of the key. The shot was online but long, with the buzzer sounding after it hit the rim.
“Nassiem made that same shot last week to beat Columbia,” Tartara said. “Same spot, same look. It was right-on, but it was long. I feel so bad for him because I know how badly he wanted it. For him to not hit that one, that’s a part of life. You know, you hit the one last week and you’re on top of the world. This week you have the same chance, but it doesn’t go in.”
Salem led Cuyahoga Heights with 15 points. He was backed by Selig with 12 and Shafer with eight.
“It was a successful season because I love my kids, they love me back, we respect our opponents and we respect the officials,” Tartara said. “But it’s never successful when you lose your last game at home in the sectional semifinals. We had a successful tournament run last year and made it to the district finals. This year we have our tails between our legs. That’s a part of life.”