Niles making strides from last season

The Niles boys basketball team heads into this week with an 8-6 record. Considering the state of the Red Dragons’ program the past couple of years, it’s not too shabby.

This is a Niles team that struggled to get to the .500 mark the past couple of seasons and were blown out the last couple years by superior opponents like a Poland team it faced last week.

Shooting wise, it wasn’t a great night for Niles. At halftime, the Red Dragons were shooting 30 percent from the floor (7 of 23). As former Youngstown State University women’s coach Ed DiGregorio used to say, they couldn’t shoot it in the ocean – the Red Dragons were able to make the game against Poland interesting.

If the Red Dragons had hit their last-second 3 or pulled a quick run together, they might have been able to beat Poland, a team that defeated Niles 29 of the last 30 meetings. And that’s even with Niles having a poor shooting night from the floor and 3-point range.

The Red Dragons’ defense is what keeps them in games. Niles uses athleticism to handcuff teams into turnovers with pressure tactics in the half court and full court. The transition game is what has helped Niles to this year’s success. And it’s what will get them more wins as the season progresses.

Offensively, Niles has relied on its fast-paced backcourt of Ray Russ, Kymone Gamble and Chris Parry to get things going.

However, things weren’t going the Red Dragons’ way Friday as an Austintown Fitch team that is now at full strength after being decimated by injuries and illness in December, raced out to an 18-4 lead early in the second quarter – making its first four shots from the floor.

The Red Dragons cut the lead to 10 at halftime and Russ’ lay-up sliced the Fitch lead to one, 30-29, midway through the third quarter. However, Niles could get no closer to sniffing the lead.

What was impressive about Niles’ attempted comeback was Russ’ missed 3, which he followed in for a putback before his runner that cut the Falcons’ lead to one.

Then, add Justin Lopes, who had four 3-pointers. He’s a good outside threat for the Dragons.

Niles relies on the outside shots, especially ones from beyond the 3-point arc. But, points off of turnovers and driving toward the basket are the high-percentage shots the Red Dragons need going forward.

Tuesday, Niles hosts a tough LaBrae team featured by one of the state’s best juniors in 6-foot-7 guard Peyton Aldridge, already being sought after by many NCAA institutions for his hardwood prowess.

It’ll be interesting how Niles responds after the loss. But be sure of one thing, the Red Dragons will not quit and will always give a blue-collar effort.