NEW MIDDLETOWN - Tuesday night's late-season match-up between Springfield Local and McDonald had the look and feel of a league title game, which, as members of the former Inter County League, the schools have done before.
Springfield entered the contest having already clinched the Inter-Tri County League's Upper Tier crown while McDonald, pending Friday's game with Southern Local, has the chance to clinch a share of the Lower Tier title.
Since combining of the Inter County League and the Tri County League, when possible, fans are always curious to see the champions from each tier pitted against one another. Springfield earned the Upper Tier some bragging rights Tuesday, prevailing late, 48-44.
Trailing 47-44 with just over 30 seconds remaining, McDonald had a chance, following a timeout, to tie the game. Springfield, however, had several fouls to give, meaning they were well under the seven team fouls that would send McDonald to the free-throw line. The intermittent fouls disrupted the Blue Devils' timing and sets, resulting in no open looks for sharpshooters Stephen Politano and Matt Seitz. Austin Bucan's attempt with seven seconds left came up short.
"We wanted Stephen (Politano) to get the ball," McDonald coach Brian Higgins said. "We thought if we could get him the ball they might even double and we could have Matthew (Seitz) open up.
"We got it to Austin (Bucan), and it's not an easy shot for him but he can make it and he's our senior. I'm comfortable with what we got."
Springfield coach Eric Fender said the fouls were used to run some clock and force the Blue Devils into a rushed offense.
"When you have fouls to give you can limit their touches and slowly move the clock down. It also makes it tougher for them to get off a designed play and rushes them a bit."
The Tigers jumped out to a 16-10 lead after one quarter of play. Politano was limited to just one shot attempt in the opening period and it didn't come until the buzzer.
Springfield's lead hovered around six for most of the night, with the Blue Devils' biggest threat not coming until late in the fourth quarter. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Seitz and Bucan cut the Tigers' advantage to three with just over 3 minutes remaining. Seitz again cut the lead to three with a minute left.
Following Bucan's late miss, Springfield was quickly fouled with 4 seconds to play. Controversy arose over the Tigers' rebound following a missed attempt at the front end of their one-and-one. Though the Tigers got the offense rebound and were fouled, discussions were held over whether the ball hit the backboard wire, which would have awarded McDonald possession.
The officials conferred and awarded Springfield the ball.
"We didn't get the rebound," Higgins said of the play. "That's my biggest concern. We got killed on the boards tonight. They're big and athletic and I thought our effort was there but we just needed to get better tail-outs.
"Once we clean up a few things like that I think we can beat teams like Springfield."
McDonald, who next week will, for the first time, compete in the Warren Division IV district, prepared itself with late season Division III tests in Brookfield and Springfield, both losses.
"Brookfield and Springfield we really looked at as tests," Higgins said. "We want to win, yeah, but we want to compete more than anything. I'm upset with every loss, but we're getting better and I don't know where our ceiling is yet. I like where we're going and we keep improving."
Seitz finished with 19 points to lead McDonald (11-8, 9-4), while Politano finished with nine.
Springfield (18-2, 13-1) was led by Ron Rogers 11 points.
Fender credited McDonald for having improved over the course of the season.
"They're a good basketball team," he said. "They've gotten a lot better from since we last scouted them and they've gotten back to what they've done in the past few years-ball pressure and trapping and gambling, some stuff we haven't really seen all year."
The Tigers, who enter next week's Division III tournament at Salem as the number one seed, have just two losses one the year-one to Brookfield and another to league rival South Range. South Range is the two seed at Salem and, at the draw, followed Springfield to their side of the bracket, setting up a possible third contest in the district semis.
"I'm not really surprised they did that," Fender said. "Coach (Dave) Purins and myself both scouted Canton Central Catholic and some of the other schools so I'm not that surprised.
"We've gotta get a win first and so do they. We're going to take things one game at a time."