If Saturday's showdown between the Austintown Fitch and Howland girls basketball teams is any indication, then the upcoming Division I district tournament is going to be a real doozy.
Fitch's girls scored seven of the game's final nine points to pull out an astonishing 52-51 win over the rival Lady Tigers in front of a revved up home crowd in Austintown. The win was Fitch's 16th overall this year, making their record 16-5 overall and 9-3 in the All-American Conference Red Tier.
The Tigers are 16-5 and 10-2 in the AAC Red Tier.
Two straight baskets in the final minutes by super sophomore Sabria Hunter brought the Falcons back and notched the score at 49 with less than a minute remaining.
After Howland went back ahead, 51-49, a free throw by Fitch's Jada Lazaro made the score 51-50. The Tigers then took their turn at the charity stripe and missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity.
On Fitch's possession, senior Natalie Lynn was fouled with 10 seconds left in the game, giving her a chance to complete the Falcons' charge and put them in the lead. Even after an attempt by the Tigers to freeze her with a timeout, Lynn calmly sank both freebies and gave the Falcons the final 52-51 advantage.
"What a great effort from our girls," Fitch head coach Dan Schnurrenberger said. "Natalie is a clutch player who has made big plays for us all year. She also has tremendous focus, which allowed her to stay calm, cool and collected down the stretch of that game."
While Lynn was the ultimate hero, it was Hunter who stole the offensive show Saturday for the Falcons. She had a showdown with the Red Tier's best player in Howland's Sara Price.
Although the Tigers' sensational senior scored a game-high 28 points, she may have passed the mantle of current G.O.A.T. in the conference to Hunter, who hurt Howland with 25 points. Fifteen of Hunter's total came after intermission, when the Falcons needed it most.
According to Schnurrenberger, there have been a few other Falcons beside the pair of Hunter and Lynn, who have been unheralded throughout this successful season. Without that group, Fitch's record may be closer to .500 than 16-5.
"Many of the girls such as triplets Rachael, Erica and Gina DiFrancesco, Camryn Constance, Jada Lazaro and Mikaela Hibbs do not get the headlines like Sabria and Natalie have been getting," Schnurrenberger said, "but they deserve as much credit as anyone else. This team works together. They do an excellent job setting screens and getting the ball to Natalie and Sabria. They also knock down shots themselves."
Fitch's coach also believes the work that his girls do on the defensive end of the floor will be a big factor in any triumphs they earn in the tournament.
"As a team, we have won eight of nine games by playing great team defense collectively," Schnurrenberger said.
The Lady Falcons played one last regular-season game against Cardinal Mooney Wednesday, which acted as an appetizer to what has the chance to be a grand buffet of tournament basketball for the third-seeded Falcons.
Fitch's first tourney tilt will be 7 p.m. Feb. 23 at home against either fifth-seeded Boardman or seventh-seeded Warren G. Harding. The Raiders will battle the Spartans 1 p.m. Saturday in Boardman.
Schnurrenberger's club disposed of both of those schools twice this year, so it seems as if a potential showdown with second-seeded Stow-Munroe Falls is in the offing.
Schnurrenberger is not going to allow his girls to take anything for granted, however.
"When it comes to tourney time there are no easy games," he said. "It's win or go home, which brings out the best in many teams. I do like my chances with this crew, though, because they've stepped up to many challenges that they have faced this year."