Newton Falls better than a 3-5 team

Newton Falls coach Roy Sembach called down the hallway as I was leaving his game on Friday against Liberty.

“See you at Brookfield,” the Newton Falls coach said about Tigers’ upcoming game on Tuesday.

Now most coaches wouldn’t fathom of coaxing a reporter to see a boys basketball team that is 3-5. But Sembach has been around long enough to know when a good game is about to happen.

The Tigers will face a solid and imposing Brookfield Warriors squad that is 6-1 and just got done throttling a previously undefeated McDonald team on its home court on Friday. On the same night, the Tigers beat a very talented, athletic Liberty squad that self-imploded by shooting 8 of 18 from the line Friday by one point, 56-55.

However, the Tigers have to get their own free-throw woes under control.

This is a team that has prided itself on having at least five players shooting more than 70 percent from the line the past couple of seasons. Not this year. Friday, the Tigers shot 18 of 30.

“We’ve been tremendous the past three years and not good at all this year,” Sembach said. “I don’t think it makes a whole lot of different what you do in practice. Free throws in a game, no matter what you do in practice, are different. I hope as the season goes, we’re more experienced. I hope we shoot them better. We’ll shoot them in practice, and we’ll shoot well, very well. Most things in basketball you can improve by practice. You can get better at cutting, screening and rebounding and defensive positioning, ball handing and even shooting technique. Shooting free throws are one of the great puzzles that I don’t have an answer.”

The Tigers are now 3-5 on the season, and have answered its slow start by posting a 3-1 mark in the All-American Conference, National Division after Friday’s victory.

Newton Falls ensured success Friday against Liberty by clamping down a 2-3 zone on the Leopards, which slowed down the normally fast-paced Liberty team. It didn’t really befuddle the Leopards, per se, but it was more of an equalizer to a smaller Newton Falls team facing a taller and quicker Liberty squad.

“We thought with Liberty’s personnel, they’re a very good rebounding team, very good driving team, we thought to go more zone was obvious option,” Sembach said. “I thought we played it well. Other games we’ve be 32 minutes of man-to-man. I’ve been very pleased with our defense all season. LaBrae was the only team to get 60 on us, and this was the second highest we’ve given up all year.

“We’re undersized, but we fight and scrap like heck for rebounds. We need to play a little smarter in the clutch and shoot a little better. We haven’t shot the ball like we’re capable of. When those things happen, that’s when things, hopefully, will get a lot better.”

After starting 0-3, Newton Falls has won three of its last five and lost three of its games by two or fewer points. That’s why Friday’s win against a talented Liberty team was so important for Newton Falls.

The Tigers lost a lot to graduation last season – including Trumbull County Coaches Association boys basketball Player of the Year in Cody Dillon, who is playing at the University of Mount Union.

That left Dale Kernan and Ozzie Hawkins, who were a part of last season’s success, to carry this year’s leadership roles. Both scored in double figures Friday.

“We needed this very badly because our record is very deceiving if you look at who we’ve played and who we’ve competed with,” Sembach said. “We arguably should be 6-1. In four of the losses, we had a lead going into the fourth quarter. In a few of them, we had sizable leads. Inexperience, whatever, we lost them. (Friday), we again lost the lead, but we were able to regain it and win the game. I hope it’s a big step in the right direction for learning how to play under pressure and finish the job. We’re absolutely capable of playing with anybody on our schedule.

“Once we start to iron all the kinks out, we can be a handful the rest of the year.”

You can see the Tigers’ improvement for yourself as Newton Falls travels to Brookfield Tuesday. The junior varsity game tips at 6 p.m., while the varsity starts around 7:30 p.m.