VALLEY VILLAGE — Both the Blair High and Hoover boys' basketball teams were evenly matched in a Campbell Hall Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament game Tuesday.
So the Tornadoes were put in a tough hole when — down by three — one of their driving forces, senior guard Nareg Essagholian, fouled out with about two minutes to go in the game.
The Vikings used the opportunity to build on their slight edge and walk away with an 80-70 victory at Campbell Hall.
Hoover Coach Jack Van Patten said some late struggles cost his squad.
"For us to score 70 and lose by 10, that's a lot," Van Patten said.
Losing Essagholian was the most devastating, though.
"That hurts us a lot," Van Patten said. "He makes stuff happen for us. [He and Kyle Bernardo] are our two senior guards. They kind of drive the motor right now."
No side led by more than 10 points in the game. Hoover first did so, starting the game on a 10-0 run, behind six points from Bernardo.
The run prompted a timeout from Blair Coach Eric Kinley with 4:56 to go in the first quarter. The Vikings regrouped and closed the quarter on a 13-3 run, tying the contest at 13 heading into the second quarter.
The lead changed hands 10 times in the second and third quarter, as Hoover carried a one-point lead into the fourth, 44-43. Momentum continued to bounce back and forth in the final eight minutes.
The Tornadoes (0-2) hit Blair (2-1) hard when Bernardo drew a bucket and a foul, converting the free throw, for a three-point play and 61-58 Hoover lead with 3:33 remaining. Bernardo finished with a game-high 28 points.
Kinley said his team simply didn't want to lose, though.
"Heart was the difference tonight," Kinley said. "They just wanted it."
Blair proved it to Kinley, as Rajon Moore tied the contest with a three-pointer and Joshua Brown gave the Vikings a 64-61 lead after converting an and-one opportunity with 2:21 to go. Brown also drew Essagholian's fifth foul 20 seconds later, which forced him to sit the rest of the way.
Essagholian had 12 points in the game.
"The kids had that fight," Kinley said. "They fight for one another and I like that."
Brown made both free throws to give his team a 66-63 lead, and a Hoover turnover on the following possession led to another three pointer from Moore (10 points, eight in the fourth quarter), which gave the Vikings a 69-63 lead with 1:30 left.
"[Brown] is the best point guard, to me, in this area," Kinley said. "The ball-handling skills, touch, three-point range, defense, free throws — he's got a little bit of everything. If he plays to his potential, he is unstoppable."
Brown was clutch for Blair, scoring 24 points in the game, 13 in the fourth quarter.
Blair's 6-foot-4 center, Sherman Simpson, who had a game-high 14 rebounds, seven blocks and nine points in the game, was quick to sing Brown's praises.
"Brown did his thing," Simpson said. "He put us on his back in that fourth quarter."
Hoover didn't go away quietly, as Adeh Navarsatyan (12 points, nine rebounds) hit a three-pointer and drew a foul for a possible four-point play for the Tornadoes. Navarsatyan missed the free throw and Blair got the rebound and sank two free throws for a 72-66 lead with just more than a minute remaining.
It was too much for Hoover to overcome.
Van Patten is happy to gain the experience, though, even if it ended in a loss.
"It was good for us," Van Patten said. "It gave us a look at teams that pressure a lot and are physical. We have to be physical."