NILES – The first thought that comes to mind upon a first visit to the new Veterans Gymnasium at Niles McKinley High School is that they forgot to wall off one end.
The look gives fans a view of another court that runs perpendicular to the main floor, while also creating a large area for the band and students to sit. It also creates an open feeling that could cause problems with depth perception when compared to War Memorial Gym, which was leveled after last season.
The Red Dragons didn’t have a problem adjusting to their new surroundings Tuesday as they took control early and dominated in posting a 78-51 win over the Champion Golden Flashes in an All-American Conference non-divisional game.
“It feels great,” junior Muhammad Salaam said of the gymnasium. “It’s smaller, so it’s more packed and tighter. The other place seemed bigger because of the balcony, but I like it here.”
Salaam showed that he felt at home with an 11-point first half as the Dragons assumed a 44-24 lead. Taking advantage of a strong team rebounding performance, Salaam, who finished with a game-high 18 points, and his teammates scored often in transition.
Niles coach Ron Price had to like what he saw of the Dragons’ season debut. The Dragons aren’t particularly tall, but they had a size advantage over the Flashes that was used to its fullest advantage in commanding the boards, 44-30.
“We’re going to have to battle all year rebounding because we probably won’t be bigger than too many teams with our schedule,” Price said. “We’re going to y to hang in there like we did last year. We’re fairly quick, so we can go, but we need everybody to rebound, no question.”
The Flashes, who opened the season with a loss to Mineral Ridge, are 0-2. First-year coach Ryan Fitch starts three underclassmen, including freshmen Michael Turner and Lucas Nasonti. There are just two seniors on the roster.
The lack of varsity experience is expected to result in some rough nights for the Flashes. Fitch won’t use that as an excuse when he doesn’t see the hustle he demands.
“It’s a combination of them making shots and us being lazy to close outs; late to close outs; no high hand on close outs,” Fitch said. “It comes back to fundamentals. A lot of it tonight, Niles simply outworked us. They out-hustled us, out-sprinted us. In every aspect of the game they outworked us.”
The Dragons never trailed after scoring the first four points and leading 21-13 following one period. Niles stretched its 20-point halftime lead to 64-34 after three quarters, with Justin Lopes scoring nine of his 16 points in the session. Price began to go deep on his bench in the fourth period as the finishing touches were put on the first game in a new home.
“We closed War Memorial in great style (with a win over Howland), and we wanted to come out and play really hard,” Price said. “I thought we accomplished that.”
It was the first game the Dragons played without Ray Russ, the leading scorer from last season. Price expects everyone to pick up the slack now that Russ has graduated.
“Ray averaged about 23 a game, and we relied on him a lot,” Price said. “We’re a different type of team. The ball was in his hands 89 percent of the time. Now we have a lot of guys we hope can handle it and spread it around.”
Kyle Paden and Cameron Kane each scored 12 points for the Dragons. Nasonti led the Flashes in scoring with 12.