War finally at peace

NILES – It was important for the Niles McKinley Red Dragons to make a statement in their final basketball game at War Memorial gymnasium.

Perhaps of more importance was the desire to avoid repeating the embarrassment of what happened on a trip to Howland earlier in the season.

The two motivating factors blended together like a great recipe Saturday for the Dragons, who sent War Memorial to its grave with an 80-67 All American Conference win over the Howland Tigers.

The Dragons (11-11) played like a team on a mission from the start, putting up 32 points in the first quarter to lead by 17 points. It proved to be a mountain too large to ascend for the Tigers, although they got to within less than 10 points a couple of times.

Gone for the Dragons was the memory of an 80-40 loss to the Tigers Jan. 4.

“That was one of the most fun wins after getting destroyed by 40 and getting laughed at,” Dragons coach Ron Price said. “Nobody’s laughing now.”

Niles, which made 10 3-point shots, connected on five in the first period. There wasn’t much Niles didn’t do well in the quarter. It was all led by senior Ray Russ, who scored 12 of his career-high 32 points in the first eight minutes.

“I knew I was going to play well because I’ve been practicing hard,” Russ said. “When you practice hard, good things happen.”

Russ echoed Price’s comments about wanting to square matters after the loss in January. To do it in the final game at War Memorial, which opened in 1957, made it all the better.

“We had to give the crowd a show, and we owed them from beating us bad the first time,” Russ said. “That’s the first time beating Howland in my career, so I had to get it.”

It was one of those nights when few things went well for the Tigers (8-11). It seemed as if the Dragons grabbed every long rebound on their offensive end. Niles had a 10-5 advantage from 3-point territory and was 20-of-26 at the foul line compared to 8-of-19 for Howland.

“What a great night for coach Price and Niles basketball,” Tigers coach Bill Bogan said. “Their kids played well after a tough game the night before against Canfield and closed out War Memorial in prime fashion.

“I told our kids that they were going to be highly emotional. Be prepared. It wasn’t going to be like the first time.”

The Tigers bounced back after a bad first quarter to score 20 points in the second period, but they still trailed by 12, 47-35. Howland got as close as seven points twice in the second half, including 72-65 with a little less than two minutes remaining in the fourth period, but Niles scored eight of the final 10 points.

Brenden Cope took control for the Tigers in the fourth quarter by scoring 14 of his 20 points. Cope matched up against Russ on the defensive end. It was a classic confrontation of size and athleticism (Cope) versus speed and quickness (Russ).

“Cope is a good player; athletic,” Russ said. “I knew I had an advantage because of my speed. I just played like I usually play.”

Arbie Murray also had 20 points for the Tigers. Reece Bogan scored 15 points.

Chris Parry made four 3-point shots in scoring 15 points for the Dragons. Justin Lopes added 12 points.

“We’ve shown signs of shooting well all year,” Price said. “I’ve told them all year, ‘The next game we’re going to bust out.’ I said tonight, ‘Let’s go out and knock down 3s because they’re so athletic inside.’

“Some of those kids on that team for Howland are tough sons-of-a-gun. I’m glad Cope and Murray are graduating. Jeez, are they good. It was an unbelievable win after getting smoked by 40 at their place. That didn’t sit well with us.”

Obviously not.