There had to be times Thursday night when it seemed there was more than one Joe Graessle on the floor at the Gillmor Center.
The Tiffin junior was seemingly everywhere, hitting shots from all spots on the floor on his way to a career-best 47 points, two shy of matching the school's record.
But there weren't multiple Joe Graessles. And that, it turns out, might've been the problem for TU - there was only one Joe Graessle.
Meanwhile, Malone countered with multiple threats including first cousins Che Richardson and Isiah Elliot, who each hit for 27 points as the Pioneers stood victorious in a shootout with the Dragons, 90-85.
"We gave up too many points, but they shot so well," TU coach John Hill said. "They shot 55 percent from the 3-point line. We shot 53 percent. The biggest thing is ... we only had nine turnovers, but they were unforced. We threw it when we were handing the ball off. We threw it when we were doing something else. When you're in that close of a game, you got to find a way not to make the little mental mistakes that we had.
"Defensively I thought we played as a team, but there were a few times we didn't switch. We didn't talk, we didn't communicate. We got to be more vocal so we don't get that easy basket or the mismatch that we wouldn't get if we were talking."
"I thought it was a real gutty performance from our kids," Malone coach Tim Walker said. "In this conference it's tough to win on the road as everybody knows. It was a great performance. We had to respond to a young man who had a phenomenal night in Joe Graessele, and it was great for our kids to hang in there."
Graessle was the one who stepped up for TU whenever the Dragons needed a big basket. When the teams came out of halftime with TU trailing, it was a Graessle 3-pointer that gave TU the lead. When Malone tied the game at 48, it was another Graessle trifecta to keep the Dragons in control.
"That was Joe's best basketball game offensively," Hill said. "He did everything that he could. He was 18 for 29, 6 for 9 (from 3-point range), 5 for 6 (from the free throw line). If I could fault anything he could've gotten more rebounds. I think we need to do a better job getting to the boards. Where we missed some easy shots, we didn't have people there to rebound the ball, and we needed to hurt them that way."
However, TU couldn't get a second player to help Graessle with the scoring load, while Richardson and Elliott each had big nights.
Their on-court chemistry was apparent to anyone in attendance. That stems from years of playing together as kids, playing on the same high school team at Canton McKinley and now playing together at the college level.
That chemistry was key in overcoming a career night from Tiffin's sharpshooter.
"We've been playing together since were little kids," Richardson said. "He knows what I can do and I know what he can do. It makes life easier. We just step up in the big games. You're going to have players that can score and Graessle's a good player."
The cousins also got some help from Cory Velhuizen, another Canton-area product who's played AAU ball with Richardson and Elliott since the eighth grade.
"Me and Che been playing together forever. So you see it on the defensive end, we just look at each other and we know where we're going," Elliott said. "Playing with Cory these last five, six years helped a lot. Cory knows, we have that eye connection, we know where each other's going to be at, what we're going to do on the floor."
While Richardson and Elliott had the bigger games as far as totals go, Veldhuizen may have hit the bigger shots. Trailing 71-70 with 3:52 to play, Veldhuizen put Malone ahead with a 3-pointer, then hit two foul shots to stretch out the lead.
A 3-pointer by Richardson put Malone up 78-71 giving the Pioneers enough breathing room to hold of TU down the stretch.
Walker said Veldhuizen's play has been key recently as he's been shaking off a recent slump. He tallied 17 points on the night.
"He had a really nice game Saturday against Ashland, shot the ball well," Walker said. "He's just someone who has to get confidence. Lately he's gotten that confidence back. He went through a little tough stretch a couple weeks ago, but he's playing really well right now, we're really excited for him."
Before the two teams locked each other in a tight second half battle, the first half was a game of runs. TU opened the game with a 13-4 run, only to see Malone respond with a 22-4 run of its own. But TU evened up the game at 33 late in the first half with a 16-7 run. From that point, there was very little separation between the two teams.
"I was pleased, we couldn't start the game any better than what you've seen," Hill said. "We moved the ball, we got got easy shot after easy shot, we went ahead 13-4 looking real good. We had some defensive breakdowns, but to give them credit, they were 29 of 33 from the foul line."
Hill said the team picked up where it left off in Saturday's upset win over Findlay, but couldn't hold Malone to the same shooting percentage as the Oilers.
"We realized how we had to play," he said. "We played well at Findlay and they shot 20 percent. We had the same kind of intensity, except Malone, they make 29 points form the foul line, they shoot 48 percent compared to Findlay's 20 and 55 percent from the 3, when we know what they're trying to do. Then at the end of the game we foul the guy we want to foul. He's not a good foul shooter and he makes both free throws.
"They won the game. Someone had to step up to win the game. Malone stepped up to win the game by hitting free throws, coming up with the lose ball. In the last two minutes they executed perfectly and we couldn't get ahead."