With Zanesville and Massillon Jackson, it’s becoming par for the course.
Three times the Blue Devils and Polar Bears have squared off in the regular season, with each game coming down to the final possession.
Friday night’s game might have been the best yet.
Senior captain Jake Phillis sank two free throws with 2.7 seconds left, and J.T. McFarland’s key defensive play in the final seconds sealed the Blue Devils’ 76-73 win in the season opener for both teams .
The teams had six players reach double figures, combined for 18 3-pointers, and shot 51 percent from the field between them.
Zanesville trailed only twice but never saw its lead reach more than nine points, as the Polar Bears stayed close with 11-of-24 shooting on 3s, a 39-23 edge in rebounding and Zanesville’s 11-of-20 showing at the free throw line.
But when it counted, Zanesville’s experienced backcourt was clutch.
“This is probably the toughest first game we’ve had since I’ve been here,” 23rd-year Zanesville coach Scott Aronhalt said. “The only ones I can think of that might even be close are some of those (ZHS) Tip-Off Classic games. … This was a battle from start to finish.”
It was Zanesville’s third straight win by three points against the determined Polar Bears, who rallied from a 66-57 deficit with five minutes left to take a 73-72 lead with 23.1 seconds remaining.
But 6-foot-3 sophomore Malik Bocook, who had 15 points and three blocks in his first varsity start, netted in a putback with 12 seconds left to give Zanesville a 74-73 lead.
Jackson had a chance, but an errant pass toward Smith on the wing went out of bounds, and Phillis followed with his two free throws to extend the lead to three.
Jackson had the ball from under the Zanesville basket following a timeout, and a leaping McFarland — fresh off an All-Ohio football campaign — deflected a long inbound pass, allowing the clock to run out.
It was sweet retribution for Phillis, who missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 1:09 left.
“I’ve been in that situation before so I was pretty calm,” said Phillis, in his fourth year as a starting guard. “I wanted to redeem myself. I didn’t want to let me teammates down.”
The game was played at frenetic pace for much of the first half as the Polar Bears tried to push the issue with full-court pressure defense.
Zanesville hit 4 of 7 3-pointers in the first quarter and led 22-17. McFarland’s three-point play sent the Blue Devils ahead 37-31 late in the second, and the hosts led 38-35 at halftime.
After maintaining a 54-51 lead after three quarters, Zanesville appeared to take control when Wibbeler scored eight points in a 12-6 run to start the fourth.
But Jackson refused to wilt.
“That’s a tough team to guard,” Aronhalt said. “They spread you out and they can all shoot 3s. And they were making them from three and four feet from behind the line.”
Despite earning two fouls in the game’s first three possessions, Phillis still led a balanced offense with 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting. Thomas Wibbeler added 16 with a trio of 3s and Dar Stanford chipped in nine with seven assists and five rebounds.
Zanesville got contributions throughout its roster, as seven players scored at least five points.
“We have 10 guys who can contribute and it’s been a long time since we’ve had that here,” Aronhalt said. “And the great thing about this group is there is still so much room to grow.”
Jackson coach Tim Debevec, whose team is one of the favorites in the Federal League with Canton McKinley and North Canton Hoover, said the Blue Devils are for real.
“That’s a hard matchup for us,” Debevec said. “They have a bunch of guys who can shoot and they’re obviously well-coached. … They have seven or eight guys who can play.”