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NORTH ROYALTON -- He knew there was a lot of work to be done.
And the team's performance left a lot to be desired.
But longtime Stow-Munroe Falls head coach Dave Close was feeling a bit affectionate Feb. 24.
"I want to hug some champions," he said to his players in the locker room.
Yes, Mr. Close, they certainly are.
The Bulldogs captured their first-ever Suburban League National Conference title after posting a hard-fought 51-48 victory over host North Royalton at Herman Joy Gymnasium.
With the win, Stow, which also suffered a 56-45 defeat to Green Feb. 25 in Uniontown, finished the regular season with a 17-5 record and a 13-1 record in the National Conference.
The Bears dropped to 11-11 overall and finished 6-8 in the conference.
Wadsworth, which was just a game behind the Bulldogs in the National Conference standings heading into Feb. 24, suffered a stunning 89-86 loss in double overtime to Nordonia in Macedonia.
As a result, the Grizzlies, who handed Stow their only conference loss earlier in the season, finished in a tie for second place with Brecksville-Broadview Heights. The Bees scored a 49-38 win over Hudson. Both Wadsworth and Brecksville finished 11-3 in the conference.
"It was a good experience," Close said. "It was ugly, but we found a way to win ugly. I gave them a lecture because we need to do better. And then I congratulated them."
The Bulldogs, who have won eight in a row, had their hands full against the scrappy Bears.
North Royalton got most of the loose balls early and was up 23-14 in the first three minutes of the second quarter.
"We had a couple of turnovers," Close said. "We were casual with the ball."
But Stow closed the first half with an 8-0 run. Junior guard Coryon Rice concluded the spurt with a 3-pointer off an assist from senior guard/forward Nick Kollar to tie the game at 24.
Kollar knocked down a 3-pointer early in the third quarter to give the Bulldogs a 30-27 lead -- a lead Stow didn't relinquish the rest of the way.
Moments later, the Bulldogs went on a 7-0 run that was capped by two free throws from senior forward Justin Harvey. Those foul shots gave Stow a 40-31 lead with less than two minutes left in the third period.
The Bulldogs had plenty of chances to take complete control, but their struggles at the free throw line allowed the Bears to stay in the game.
Stow made just 15-of-28 free throws and was just 7-of-13 in the final eight minutes.
"We kept splitting pairs," Close said. "We were about 75 percent for the season."
The Bulldogs, who had a 48-44 lead, took up more than a minute off the clock late in the game by playing keep-away.
When North Royalton finally committed a foul, Stow made just 1-of-2 free throws.
The Bears made things really interesting when senior post player Max Glass scored a layup after a steal by senior guard Brandon Kyle. That cut the Bulldogs' advantage to 49-46 with 37.4 seconds left.
Stow then missed the front end of a one-and-one situation and North Royalton made it a one-point game (49-48) when sophomore point guard Jack Bunsey knocked down two free throws with 16.6 seconds remaining.
But Rice, who missed just one foul shot in six attempts, calmly buried two free throws with 14.5 seconds left and the Bears' final shot to tie the game found air as the buzzer sounded.
"We had that one good, long possession," Close said. "They had to start fouling us. But we didn't score. You can't keep missing front ends."
Rice came off the bench to lead all scorers with 20 points. He knocked down three 3-pointers.
Junior forward Mason McMurray contributed 13 points and senior guard Logan Lindsay and Kollar added 8 and 7 points, respectively.
Bunsey and Kyle each had 10 points for North Royalton.
The Bulldogs posted a 45-35 victory in the junior varsity contest. Sophomore forward Brian Cartwright led Stow with 13 points and sophomore guard Bryce Harvey finished with 10 points.
Against Green, Stow was outscored 29-11 in the middle two quarters. McMurray led the way with 23 points and 9 rebounds and Rice contributed 9 points.
Stow earned a 37-31 win in the JV game.
Fourth-seeded Stow earned a first-round bye at the Copley Division I sectional-district tournament. Stow was scheduled to host the Highland-Walsh Jesuit winner in a sectional title game March 4 at James G. Tyree Gymnasium. Results were not available at press time.