Newton Falls dumps Liberty in opening-round showdown

HOWLAND – It was an early start to the first game of the Division III district boys’ basketball tournament for the Newton Falls Tigers.

With that in mind, the Tigers weren’t in the mood to be the first team to exit the tournament trail in their 5 p.m. game against the Liberty Leopards. Playing more like a team that was in a district final than the first round, the Tigers hustled their way to a 57-48 win Monday at Howland High School.

“We have a lot of energetic guys,” said Tigers senior Dale Kernen, who scored a game-high 20 points. “We started picking up throughout the season and started getting our game together. Nobody wants to go home now. We didn’t want to be the first team out of the tournament. Everybody knew it. It didn’t need to be said.”

The Tigers (13-10) will play Girard Wednesday at 6 p.m. in a second-round game. The Leopards finished with a 9-12 record.

Newton Falls took the first lead and never trailed. The score was tied at 18 early in the second period following an eight-point run by the Leopards, but the Tigers stretched the lead to six before a fielder by Cameron Clark and a 3-point shot by Clark at the buzzer reduced the differential to 28-27 at halftime.

The Tigers scored the first five points of the third quarter and had control the rest of the game.

“We thought this would be a very tough game when we got them in the draw because we don’t have much size at all, and their rebounding really scared me,” Tigers coach Roy Sembach said. “I thought we did a great job of rebounding. That was the key rebounding and defense.”

The Tigers seemed to come up with every loose ball and long rebound. Newton Falls had a 29-18 rebounding advantage, led by Kernen with 11.

“Our main focus was on rebounding and defense,” senior Ozzie Hawkins said. “If we have those two going in every game, we can be in every game in this tournament.”

The Leopards entered the game thinking that a few improvements from a 56-55 loss to the Tigers in the regular season might be enough to produce a win. It didn’t work as planned for coach Dan Bubon.

“Ugly from the start,” Bubon said. “All we talked about was getting off to a good start. Whoever gets the lead will be able to make the other team play their game. They had the lead the whole game.

“Our attention to detail is poor and theirs is very good. In a close game that’s the difference. All the little things. All the rebounds we missed. All the turnovers we had when we had no business dribbling. Foul shots we missed. Those things all add up.”

Trailing 45-33 early in the final quarter, Liberty managed to cut the Newton Falls lead to 50-43 with a chance to reduce it further on its next possession. The Leopards, however, missed a 3-point shot and the follow up. Newton Falls sealed the victory by making seven free throws down the stretch.

“We went on a little span there where no one was scoring,” Kernen said. “I have to give props to Derek Walton. He made a layup on the baseline. That really got us going again.”

Walton had 12 points and Hawkins finished with 10. Asim Pleas led the Leopards with 14. John Helms had 11, and Clark added 10.