Niles claims basketball edge over rival Girard
GIRARD –It’s never good when the home team’s student section starts chanting, ‘Let’s play football! Let’s play football!’
In Girard’s case, the chant made sense, considering its incredible run to the state final, but it was still music to Niles’ ears.
The Red Dragons swept the basketball season series over Girard, winning a heated game, 57-48, thanks to a late push that held off the testy Indians.
“(The rivalry) carries over from football season because they honestly had more wins on our field than we did,” said Niles senior Corbin Foy of Girard winning three times at Bo Rein Stadium, including the playoffs, to the Red Dragons’ two home victories. “So it means a lot for the football guys, and it means a lot for the basketball guys.”
Niles (9-8, 5-5) held the lead for much of the game and came through with clutch shots every time the Indians (10-7, 6-5) pulled within a few points.
The biggest stretch came in the final 3 minutes when Girard cut what had been a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit to one at 41-40. Niles sophomore Jalen Royal-Eiland made a lay-up and was fouled at the 2:12 mark. He made the free throw, and after a defensive stop, Cylar Kane-Johnson also hit a lay-up and was fouled. While he missed the free throw, the basket all but sealed the victory.
Kane-Johnson scored 11 of his team-high 17 in the fourth quarter, and the Red Dragons made their final eight free throws to pull away.
“In the fourth quarter, I always try to help my team as much as I can because I know they look at me,” Kane-Johnson said. “I try to lead them, no matter if it’s scoring or getting a stop, I try to do everything I can, especially in that fourth quarter, to turn it on.”
The game was turned on from the start.
Both teams showed defensive intensity, and at times, maybe a little too much. Adam Connellly, who was guarding Kane-Johnson throughout the game, was hit with a technical foul late in the third quarter after apparently saying something to a referee. A Girard assistant coach was then called for a technical foul seconds later. The double technical gave the Red Dragons four free throws and possession of the ball. They took a 33-25 lead after all was said and done.
“I don’t really have an answer to that,” said Girard coach Craig Hannon when asked why they were called for a pair of technical fouls.
“We don’t not play hard,” added Hannon when asked if the calls energized the Indians. “We play with pretty good effort. Sometimes we just can’t put the ball in the hole, and tonight was a pretty good example of that.”
Every time the offensively challenged Indians did start to piece together a run, Niles responded.
Foy made four 3-pointers, and each one seemed to come at a key moment in the game. He finished with 15 points and ended what he said had been a shooting slump. The Indians’ Doug Foster, the son of the Niles coach (also named Doug Foster), added 14 points, and he too had a key bucket late in the fourth as well as two free throws to help extend the lead.
“Every time you play this rivalry over here, it’s a fun game,” said coach Foster of the atmosphere. “We had some kids really step up.”
Niles also didn’t lose its focus when there were some hard fouls and trash talk between players.
“If you see our shirts, they say, ‘Play smart, play hard and play together,’ “ coach Foster said. “Those are things that we try to do a lot of, and that’s a great point because we did that tonight. We didn’t force a lot (of shots). Sometimes when they’re grabbing (Kane-Johnson), and there were a couple technicals, it could have got out of hand, but our kids stayed in tact on what the goal was.”
Hannon said the Indians are going through a rough stretch offensively.
They lost one of their top scorers in senior Austin O’Hara, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, in early January, and they’re still searching for a way to fill the void.
On Tuesday, he said the problem had more to do with Niles than any deficiencies of the Indians.
“They made a few (plays) when they needed to make a few,” Hannon said. “It felt like we just couldn’t get over the hump. We’d get it to within one, and they’d hit a shot to get it back to 3. We’d get back to one, they’d make one to put it back to four. We just couldn’t string together any possessions of score, stop, score, stop, and I thought, especially in the fourth quarter, that was the final nail in the coffin.”