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by Rob Barrone | Correspondent
Hudson -- Prior to boys basketball action in the Northeast Ohio Conference River Division Feb. 8 second-place Hudson and fourth-place Cuyahoga Falls had unique views of the top of the standings.
Coming into their second meeting of the season with the Black Tigers, the Explorers were 4-2 in the division and one game behind in the loss column to first-place Brush (4-1).
Meanwhile, Falls, despite a 2-3 River Division mark, controlled its own destiny. Besides a date with Hudson, the Black Tigers still have two meetings with Brush and another with Twinsburg.
The two teams made dramatic turns with the Explorers come-from-behind 57-49 win at Ray "Buck" Hyser Gymnasium.
Their seventh straight win (14-4 overall) along with Twinsburg's 65-46 thumping of the Arcs suddenly put both Hudson and Twinsburg atop the standings with 5-2 marks.
Brush was 4-2 in the division as of press time.
Falls' fourth league loss virtually eliminated them from the race.
The Arcs' loss still gave the Black Tigers a mathematical chance.
Falls hosts Twinsburg (Feb. 12), travels to Solon (Feb. 15) and then hosts Brush in a doubleheader of sorts (Feb. 22).
The Black Tigers are set to play the fourth quarter of a game called due to a power outage at Brush at 5 p.m. (the Arcs led 50-46 heading into the final frame). After the junior varsity game, the two varsity squads are scheduled to meet again at 7:30.
"All we have to do is win out and we win the league," Explorers head coach Jeff Brink said. "Our league is very balanced and we've got some tough games, so we can't look ahead to Friday [Feb. 15 in a matchup with Twinsburg on the road at 7:30 p.m.]."
Hudson was scheduled to host Stow-Munroe Falls Feb. 12. Results were not available at press time.
The Explorers also got the third seed at the Copley Division I sectional-district tournament. Nordonia received the top seed and Twinsburg and Brunswick got the second and fourth seeds, respectively.
Hudson received an opening-round bye.
The Explorers are scheduled to play the Medina-Medina Highland winner in a sectional title contest March 2 at 6 p.m.
While the second version of Hudson-Falls had the same result, this one was much closer.
In the first meeting, the Explorers took a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter and coasted to a 72-60 win. This time around, the Black Tigers took a 36-33 lead heading into the final eight minutes, thanks to the soft bounce on a three-pointer by Josh Ricker (a game-high 20 points) with two seconds to play in the third.
That edge disappeared quickly in the fourth quarter when Hudson's three-point specialist, Kevin Zullo, got hot.
After a foul shot by teammate Steve Boslet (seven points and nine rebounds), Zullo (12 points) canned his second triple of the night and first since the first quarter with 6:35 to play to give the Explorers the 37-36 edge. Ricker answered 25 seconds later with the third of his four treys, but Zullo wasn't finished.
After Boslet hit two more free throws to tie the game at 39, Zullo hit a pull-up three in transition to give Hudson the lead for good at 42-39 with 5:26 remaining.
At that point, the Explorers had all the momentum.
Those first five points turned out to be the beginning of a 14-0 run that put the game out of reach.
Alex Mushock's steal led to a Zack Brandy (16 points and seven assists) fast break layup. A John Zuccaro pick-up off a Brandy deflection led to another free throw by Brandy. Zullo hit another bomb and John Zuccaro (12 points, including two three-pointers) got into the act, drilling a transition three for a 51-39 lead with 3:22 to play.
"They [the Explorers] have guys who step up and make plays," Falls head coach Rob Slone said. "The Zullo kid comes in and buries three threes in the fourth quarter.
"They have Brandy [926 career points] who obviously can play and Boslet who obviously can play. If we focus on them, they always have a kid come off the bench.
"As soon as you focus only on those two, they have somebody there who makes you pay. This time, it was Zullo with four threes and last time, it was [Alex] Albright who made three threes."
Zullo's spark on the bench has become a regular occurrence in recent weeks.
"Kevin Zullo has been doing it all year for us," Brink said. "His performance since Ben's injury [Ben Gedeon, who is out with a shoulder strain] has been one of the keys to keeping us on a roll. Kevin was awesome. He struggled a bit in the first half but I said, 'Kev, keep firing because I know you're going to make them' and he did."
Zullo was 4-of-8 from beyond the arc for the game.
Still, the Black Tigers didn't go quietly. Matt Lawrence scored his five points on the night with a baseline drive for two and a triple from the right wing to close to 51-44 with 1:54 left. After an exchange of scores, Mushock (4-of-5 from the line in the final minute for his only points to go with eight rebounds) hit both ends of a one-and-one.
However, Ricker's final three with 39 ticks on the clock made it a two-possession game (55-49). Two missed one-and-ones by the Explorers in one trip down court left the door open, but Mushock hit two more free throws to seal the deal.
"One thing that has really impressed me about our squad is the resiliency we have shown to adverse situations," Brink said.
"Every time people have made a run, we keep our composure. There is no panic. There is a resolve in our locker room and our bench to find a way to win. We seem to regroup and make plays when we need to."