NILES - In a tight game Friday night between Struthers and Niles, the Wildcats' Dave Stewart stepped up big when his team needed him. The senior came off the bench to score a team-high 16 points including seven in the fourth quarter to lead Struthers to a 61-58 victory in an All-American Conference contest.
"Dave did a great job. It seems like we're figuring it out at the right time," Struthers coach Joe Savko said. "We weren't very successful at the beginning of the year, but our kids are figuring it out right now. The best player on the team is the open player. Dave did a great job tonight of coming in and leading, showing some senior leadership when he needed to. All the other guys responded."
With Struthers (8-12, 6-6) leading 50-49, Stewart scored for a three-point lead. He later had a lob to Tomeko Holness, who laid the ball in for a 56-49 advantage. With 31.6 seconds left, Stewart added two free throws that gave the Wildcats a 59-53 lead that iced the game.
"Being a senior on the team, it's what coach expects out of me," Stewart said. "I try to be as versatile as possible, going out there scoring points for my team, rebounding, assists, defense, anything."
Stewart brought his team back for the final time in the third quarter. He scored five consecutive points that turned a five-point deficit into a 40-40 tie heading into the fourth quarter. Struthers took the lead to begin the final quarter and never trailed after that.
"Give them credit, they really played a nice game," Niles coach Ron Price said. "They've got some strength. They've got some strong kids inside. That's a real nice basketball team. We just had too many shots go in and out. They hit a lot of shots and we didn't make enough shots around the hoop."
Price did all he could to extend the game and give his team every chance to come back. James Tate hit a 3-pointer and Chris Parry made a pair of free throws that drained the score 60-58 with 1.7 seconds left. The Red Dragons purposefully called a time out they didn't have, earning a technical.
Stewart made 1 of 2 free throws and Struthers successfully inbounded the ball to finally close the game out.
"We tried. We called a timeout at the end knowing that it was a technical," Price said."We had to stop the game. We did the right thing. Hope they miss them both, get a steal and throw it up from half court. You've got to try and win. That's my first technical of the year, so that's good."
The Wildcats got off to a horrible start this season. Savko said a renewed commitment to defense has been the key to their turnaround.
"We're playing a little bit harder," he said. "On defense, we're digging down a little bit, knowing we've got to get a stop on each possession. We had some trouble with Ray Russ. He had a great game. The kid was on fire, he was making buckets inside, outside. He was all over the place."
Russ led all players with 26 points, including 12 of 12 from the free-throw line. He failed to make a field goal in the second half, but all his free throws came in the final two quarters.
"He's been outstanding for us," Price said of Russ. "We need that second kid to tonight to hit and I don't think we quite got somebody as hot. Guys were hitting a few here and there but we needed that second guy to get hot with him because they were playing so well."
The Red Dragons (11-9, 5-5) have two games remaining in the regular season, Friday at Canfield and Saturday at home against Howland in the final game in the history of War Memorial Gymnasium.