Highland's Jarrett Smith (23) drives to the basket around the defense of Tallmadge's Jake Rensel (4) in the first half of Friday's game at Tallmadge High School. (NICK CAMMETT/GAZETTE)
TALLMADGE — Highland seniors Collin Rittman and Landon Mazzocco refused to be denied Friday.
As a result, their team is one win from claiming the Suburban League American Conference title.
Rittman and Mazzocco combined for 39 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in powering the Hornets to a 51-42 victory over Tallmadge in a key boys basketball matchup.
The triumph moved Highland (13-7, 8-3) into a three-way deadlock atop the SL American with Revere and Copley. Each squad has one game remaining, but the Hornets are guaranteed at least a share of the championship if they beat Barberton next Friday.
“You can’t ask for much more than that, playing for the league title in your final game,” Highland coach Adam Cestaro said. “Tonight was a 32-minute gut check to see what we were made of. Everyone passed the test because we’ve got a veteran group that doesn’t get rattled very easily.”
The highest grades were earned by Rittman, a 6-foot-2 small forward, and 6-3 center Mazzocco, who were nothing short of terrific in the biggest game of their careers.
Rittman posted game highs of 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists, while Mazzocco collected 19 points, six boards and three assists. They accounted for 15 of the Hornets’ 18 baskets and exactly half of their 32 rebounds.
“We weren’t going to let anyone stop us,” said Rittman, who was 8-for-18 from the field and 3-for-3 from the line. “Landon and I have played together since third grade, and we trust and count on each other at all times.
“That’s true for each of our seniors. We’re not new to these types of games, so we were as composed as you could be on the court, even though we knew this was a must-win.”
Senior point guard Matthew Francesconi had 18 points to pace the Blue Devils (12-8, 6-5), who were mathematically eliminated from title contention. Tallmadge never led and trailed by nine points midway through the third quarter before pulling within two in the fourth.
After Francesconi drove to the hoop to cut Highland’s advantage to 32-30, the guests answered with eight straight points — four on Mazzocco layups off passes from senior shooting guard Jarrett Smith — to push their lead to double-digits.
Tallmadge twice pulled within four points as the clock wound down, but the Hornets sealed the deal by making 13-of-15 free throws in the final period. Mazzocco, Rittman, Smith and fellow senior Ryan Frederick accounted for all of the foul shots.
“We do practice free throws a lot, but we’re also very comfortable in close games,” said Mazzocco, who made 7-of-11 field goal attempts and 5-of-7 freebies. “We’re really used to being in this position, and we were so prepared for this game. We watched a lot of film all week and knew all of their plays while they were running them.”
Senior small forward Pete Gmitric added eight defensive rebounds off the bench for Highland, while Smith had five points and Frederick had two points and five boards. Starting point guard Jake Rogers, a junior, did not commit a turnover as the Hornets made just five in the defensive battle.
“We wanted to finish off this season the right way, and that started tonight,” Cestaro said. “Now, we’ve got our rivalry game with Wadsworth, then Barberton for a chance at winning the league. We’re just swinging the axe, trying to chop the tree down.”
Rittman echoed that sentiment, saying, “We know what’s on the line and we know how big playing at Barberton will be. But whatever happens, the seniors are good knowing that we’re playing for the SL title in our final (regular-season) game.”
Cole Tessena scored 11 points as the junior varsity Hornets rolled to a 48-24 victory.
Contact Brian Dulik at email@example.com. Follow him @BrianDulik on Twitter,
Highland 51, Tallmadge 42
HIGHLAND 8 8 16 19 — 51
TALLMADGE 5 5 17 15 — 42
Highland — Collin Rittman 8-3-20, Ryan Frederick 0-2-2, Landon Mazzocco 7-5-19, Jarrett Smith 1-3-5, Jake Rogers 0-0-0, Pete Gmitric 2-0-5, Ryan Acks 0-0-0, Alex Jaworski 0-0-0. TOTALS: 18-13-51.
Tallmadge — Seth Gergely 1-1-3, Sam Seeker 3-1-7, Zach Boyd 1-0-2, Jake Rensel 4-0-11, Matthew Francesconi 5-5-18, Brandon Heigelmann 0-0-0, Jason Grassie 0-1-1, Nick Hussing 0-0-0. TOTALS: 14-8-42.
3-point goals — Rittman, Gmitric, Rensel 3, Francesconi 3. Rebounds — Highland 32 (Rittman 10), Tallmadge 27 (Gergely, Rensel, Grassie 5). Assists — Highland 11 (Rittman 4), Tallmadge 8 (Gergely 3). Records — Highland (13-7, 8-3), Tallmadge (12-8, 6-5). Junior varsity — Highland 48, Tallmadge 24.