NEW MIDDLETOWN -In the third quarter of their anticipated Inter-Tri County League upper tier showdown with conference-leading Springfield, things looked to be slipping away for the Lisbon Blue Devils.
Behind a swarming defense, the Tigers had amassed a double-digit lead and appeared poised to break the game open. Lisbon coach Chris Huckshold told his team they could either fold or fight back. The players looked him dead in the eye and said they wouldn't give up.
What followed was a passionate rally in which the Blue Devils wiped out a 12-point deficit by the middle of the fourth quarter then outfought the Tigers down the stretch for a thrilling 52-50 win in front of a rowdy crowd at Springfield High School.
"That was the most fun I've ever had playing," Lisbon sophomore guard Austin Rutecki said. "It was crazy, I'm so happy right now. We were down, but kept our heads up and fought back. It was a great win for our team."
The Blue Devils improve to 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the ITCL upper tier and pull even at the top with Springfield (7-4, 5-1).
It was Lisbon's first win over Springfield since a 50-34 victory on Feb. 27, 1970 in a sectional final at Struthers Fieldhouse. Springfield had won 20 straight over the Devils.
"Tonight was a great high school basketball experience," Huckshold said. "It was not just a win for the Lisbon basketball team, it was a win for the whole community. To have the crowd support we did was tremendous. Our kids were up against the wall and came out fighting."
Rutecki led the Blue Devils with 19 points and six rebounds and drained two crucial three pointers in the fourth quarter. Point guard Josh Liberati was limited in the first half, but made plays during the rally and finished with 10 points and six assists. The sophomore hit the go-ahead jumper with one minute to play."
"A big key for them in the second half was Liberati," Springfield coach Eric Fender said. "He started doing a little more on his own and was more creative with things. That hurt us."
After a quick 8-5 Lisbon lead, Springfield seized control with a 15-3 run to take a 20-11 lead midway through the second. The Tigers would maintain that advantage until late in the third. Key to the effort was an aggressive, trapping defense that forced numerous Lisbon turnovers and the scoring of sophomore guard Graham Mincher, who led the Tigers with 17 points. Mark Schuler contributed eight points and eight rebounds.
"When we attacked the defense I thought we were fine," Huckshold said. "But we had a stretch where we held back and took our time and it gave us problems."
"We were a little nervous coming out and it took us some time to get settled in," Rutecki said.
With a minute left in the third, Lisbon began making its move. An Avery Andric three and two Rutecki foul shots had the lead down to 40-33 heading to the fourth.
"We just tried to stay focused and fight back one possession at a time," Rutecki said. "The last minute gave us some momentum going to the fourth."
The Blue Devils then gathered steam in a hurry. A nifty pass from Liberati to Matt Spencer and two Andric free throws cut the lead to four. Liberati then got a steal, was fouled and made both attempts whittling the margin to 40-38. Springfield called a timeout and the Blue Devil fans greeted their team with a raucous standing ovation. The Tigers were whistled for a travel on their next possession and Rutecki went down and drilled a three which gave the Devils their first lead since the opening minutes and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"I've never played in front of a crowd that big, and once they got going it gave us even more momentum. We definitely fed off of them," Rutecki said.
From then on, the team traded blows the rest of the game. Andric found Josh Craig with a behind the back pass to put the devils up 47-44 with 1:48 to go, but Springfield forward Brandon Chamberlain answered with a corner three on the next possession to tie it. Liberati immediately followed with a long two-pointer to put Lisbon up for good with 1:11 left. With the Devils still clinging to a two-point lead, Craig coolly iced matters with a pair of made foul shots with under 10 seconds left.
"There is not much you can do when a team executes as well offensively as Lisbon did down the stretch," Fender said. We could have taken better care of the ball down the stretch but other than that, it was just them making plays."
The two squads now embark on their second halves, dead even in the league standings.
"We haven't had a win this big in over 10 years," Huckshold said. "But tomorrow it's back to work. There is a long way to go."
LISBON SCORING: Matt Spencer 2-0-5, Austin Davis 0-0-0, Josh Liberati 4-2-10, Austin Rutecki 6-4-19, Josh Craig 3-4-10, Avery Andric 2-2-8, Trevor Reese 0-0-0. TEAM TOTALS: 17, 12-15: 52.
SPRINGFIELD SCORING: Jake Ohlin 3-0-8, Jared Musial 0-0-0, Ryan Kohler 1-0-2, Mark Schuler 4-0-8, Graham Mincher 5-6-17, Nate Simboli 3-0-7, Hunter Snyder 2-0-4, Jordon Peterson 0-0-0, Joe Wrask 0-0-0, Brandon Chamberlain 1-1-4. TEAM TOTALS: 19, 7-12: 50.
Three-point goals: Lisbon 5 (Rutecki 3, Andric 2), Springfield 5 (Musial 2, Mincher, Simboli, Chamberlain).