When the Boardman High School boys basketball team defeated Louisville in mid-January, there was a sense that these two Division I schools would see each other again in the state tournament.
Seven weeks later in Boardman, the Spartans and the Leopards stood sneaker-to-sneaker with an Alliance District sectional championship at stake. In a game that was eerily similar to the first matchup, the third-seeded Spartans sent the No. 5 seed Leopards home from the playoffs with a 62-54 triumph.
Visions of that first meeting were dancing in the heads of everyone involved in Saturday night's affair. Just like the game in January, the first half was played evenly, with both sides almost feeling each other out.
Louisville led after one quarter, 14-12, then the Spartans fought back to take a 26-24 lead at halftime, thanks to a last-second 3-pointer by Holden Lipke to close out the second stanza. Lipke's successful triple was an enormous lift to the Spartans' spirits because they were struggling to sustain any shooting momentum over the first 16 minutes.
"I think gaining the lead at the end of the first half was huge," Boardman head coach Pat Birch said.
Although Louisville lassoed the lead back early in the second half, a poor shooting performance the rest of the third quarter coupled with hotter shooting by the Spartans gave the home team a 43-37 lead heading into the final frame.
Boardman kept the offensive momentum cooking in the fourth period to pull away for its eight-point victory. A 12-2 run to start the quarter spurred the Spartans. The way the contest played out after halftime was almost identical to how Boardman bounced Louisville, 59-54, almost two months ago.
"We were able to separate a little bit (just like in the first game) after being tight in the first half," Birch said.
Lipke's tremendous triple at the end of the first half was one of the three he hit on the night. The junior led the Spartans in scoring Saturday with 18 points. John Ryan and Mike Melewski each scored 11 points in the sectional clincher. Travis Koontz scored nine points. Sebastian Heinonen helped out with six.
The win in the sectionals added to a historic season for the Spartan boys. When Boardman beat rival Fitch, 63-51, in the regular-season finale Feb. 24, it set a record for most wins since 1986-87.
The Spartans ended the regular season with a 19-4 overall record and 10-2 in the All-American Conference Red Tier.
The third-seeded Spartans move on to the district semifinal to play No. 2 seed Uniontown Lake 7 p.m. tonight at Alliance High School. The winner of tonight's matchup will advance to the Saturday final versus the winner of Wednesday's game between first-seeded Arkon Ellet and No. 4 seed Waren G. Harding.
Tonight's showdown with Lake will rekinde a rivalry that started when the Spartans were part of the Federal League. The Blue Streaks are seeded one spot ahead of the Spartans in the Alliance District and sport a 16-6 record.
Lake hammered Boardman league cousin Howland, 56-36, Saturday to capture the sectional final.
If Boardman gets by their former Federal League brothers, it will meet the winner of the highly anticipated battle between Akron Ellet and Warren G. Harding. Boardman and Harding split a pair of contests so far this season, with the Spartans winning the Dec. 2 matchup, 52-51, and the Raiders taking a 54-43 victory Jan. 13.
No doubt, Spartan Nation would love a rubber match with the preseason Final Four favorite Raiders and a district championship as the reward.