NILES - Following the team's 40-point loss at Howland last Friday, coach Ron Price and the Niles Red Dragons looked to bounce back against Liberty, and despite struggling early, they accomplished their mission.
The Red Dragons came back from a six-point deficit midway in the third quarter to beat Liberty at home, 56-53.
"That (loss to Howland) was our worst game," Price said. "We've been competitive all year, and it kind of carried over a little bit tonight. I didn't think we played particularly well.
"I'm glad that we fought through a game where I don't think either team played particularly well."
Niles (7-4) struggled early from the beyond the arc, which allowed the Leopards (5-5) to lead for most of the game.
The Red Dragons went 2 of 15 on 3-point field goals in the first half but trailed by only five points going into halftime. Niles came out firing again in the second half, draining two 3s within the first minute and a half.
In the second half, the Red Dragons recorded five 3s, including two by Ray Russ on the team's first two possessions in the fourth quarter, giving Niles its first lead of the game.
"(The 3-point shooting) was very big because coach always tells us we're not a solid 3-point shooting team - we're streaky," said junior Justin Lopes, who recorded two of his three 3's in the second half. "We can come out and hit some 3s when we need them."
To go along with the better percentage from beyond the arc, Niles changed its defensive tactics, and it paid off, with the Red Dragons going on a 12-0 run in a 4-minute span at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter.
The Red Dragons deployed a full-court press, and that pressure bothered the Leopards. Liberty committed five turnovers in that span - the same number of shots the team attempted.
"At the end of the third and beginning of the fourth, we didn't score for a long time, and that was just a killer," Liberty coach Dan Bubon said. "We were still playing decent defense. They made a few baskets, but we just made none."
Despite going down seven after the run, the Leopards clawed back into the game, pulling to within two points with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, but Liberty couldn't make a basket to tie things up.
For Bubon, he said he rued the missed opportunities, including early in the game with Niles struggling from the field.
Darrien Underwood came firing out the gates, scoring 10 points in the game's first 10 minutes, but he picked up his third foul at the 5:42 mark in the second quarter and had to come off the floor.
"When you play games like this, you go through all the little things - the could have, would have, should have," Bubon said. "That's tough when you get a kid in foul trouble... We need him, but if he gets his fourth in the first half, that's really a killer.
"We got through ok without him. We were still up at half, but it took scoring away."
As for Niles, Lopes echoed his coach, saying that the team didn't play its best game but managed to get the win it wanted.
"In warmups, we were all pumped and stuff to come out hot, and we came out real sluggish," Lopes said. "We played sluggish the whole game, but we battled through it. it was a good win."