STRUTHERS — Howland knew it had done it before this season — several times.
Coming back from deficits was nothing new to them, and on Friday the Tigers did it again.
Facing a 10-point deficit at halftime, Howland stormed back in the second half to upset Struthers 55-50 and advance to the district semifinals next week.
“Twenty-two games prepares you for this,” said Howland head coach Dan Bubon. “All we were sitting there saying is, we’ve been down 10 before — we’ve been down 20 before — and come back. Don’t panic. Keep playing hard on defense and the shots will start falling. In the second quarter, the biggest thing was that we missed a ton of shots in a row. I bet we went four minutes without a score. That was the biggest difference in the second half — we just hit more of those same shots and ramped up our defense a little.”
Needing a spark offensively to spur the comeback, the Tigers turned to their leading scorer — Anthony Massucci.
The senior took over and scored 18 of his game-high 26 points after halftime. Despite only going 9-for-26 from the floor, the misses didn’t faze Massucci as he just kept shooting — willing Howland back into the game and then eventually pulling the Tigers ahead.
“I was struggling to hit shots in the first half, but I stayed confident in myself,” Massucci said. “My coaches put all the trust in the world in me and I just started hitting in the second half. It put us on a good run and allowed us to close out the game.”
Perhaps none of his buckets were more important for the Tigers than his last one.
With under just over a minute to go, Howland led 48-47. Struthers’ Chance Laczko hit a huge three that gave the Wildcats the lead.
Massucci immediately took the inbounds pass and stormed down the floor. He hesitated at the top of the key, drove into the lane, planted his foot and spun around flipping the ball onto the lip of the rim and through the net while drawing contact on his arm.
He finished the three-point play with a free throw at the line, giving Howland the lead for good.
“I told myself to go into attack mode,” Massucci said. “I had to get a bucket for my team. We were struggling a little bit and ended up getting the and-one, which was a spark plug for our team and put us up one.”
Being only down one, Struthers still had chances in that final minute.
A drive and layup rolled off the rim and a turnover in the corner on a defensive play by Massucci cost the Wildcats, but despite possible contact on the drive and on another play in the paint in the final seconds drew no whistles from the officials and Howland’s Alex Henry was able to put the game away at the line with four straight made free throws.
“Howland earned that victory,” said Struthers head coach Michael Wernicki. “Best of luck to them. They played hard and they earned it. I’m going to leave it at that. We took some ill-advised shots, turned the ball over a little bit and didn’t defend as well as we needed to and they made the shots they needed to make.”
“Great players are hard to stop,” Wernicki added about Massucci. “He’s a senior who didn’t want his year to end. I had my best guys on him and he had a good night. They earned their victory.”
A dominant second quarter in which the Wildcats outscored Howland 18-7, allowed Struthers to build its double-digit halftime lead.
Laczko led Struthers with 20 points, including hitting three 3-pointers in the second half. Nick Delgratta also scored 13, while Ronnie Leonard added 12.
As defending district champions, the Wildcats end their season with an overall record of 17-7 after earning a share of the Northeast 8 regular season conference title.
The 12th-seeded Tigers now head to the district semifinals in Ashtabula on March 2 where they will face No. 8 seed Ursuline, which beat No. 5 seed Marlington Friday night.
“We’ve done a lot of losing lately in my high school career,” Massucci said. “We have a goal to win a district championship and it feels good to still be able to compete for that goal.”
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