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Niles battles league foe Struthers to the end

NILES — On paper, Tuesday’s Northeast-8 Conference game between Niles and Struthers was a mismatch.

The Wildcats entered the night with just one loss, while Niles had just two wins and was riding a five-game losing streak.

However, while fans might have expected a lopsided game, Struthers coach Michael Wernicki expected just the opposite.

“I told our guys before the game that this is the dog days of January, from here on out we’re going to be going up against nothing but well-coached teams who have us scouted,” Wernicki said. “Nothing will come easy, not in this league.”

Wernicki’s pregame message proved quite prophetic. The Wildcats lifted their record to 9-1 (5-1 NE-8) with a hard-fought 39-37 road win over the Red Dragons.

Niles falls to 2-9 (1-5).

“That wasn’t a pretty game, but we did just enough to win, and this time of the year, against well-coached teams, sometimes you have to be satisfied with that,” Wernicki said. “We made our share of mistakes, but also you have to give Niles a ton of credit. That team plays hard, and they are due. They are going to give opponents fits down the stretch.”

Junior Aidan Slocum led Struthers with 10 points, including five pivotal points in the final period. Brandon Washington and Ronnie Leonard scored seven apiece for the Wildcats, while Carson Ryan and Trey Metzka chipped in with six apiece.

Niles was led by Joe Wolfe’s 11 points. Vince Chieffo came off the bench and gave the Red Dragons a big spark, providing 10 points.

Early on, it appeared that the game might be a bit of a shootout. The two teams traded buckets for most of a first quarter which saw four ties and four lead changes.

Struthers led 17-14 after eight minutes of play, however from that point on points were at a premium.

Niles scored the first five points of the second period to take a 19-17 advantage. A three-pointer by Washington with 2:01 left in the half gave Struthers it’s only points of the quarter, and a 20-19 lead which the Wildcats took to the locker room.

Niles scored the first four points of the second half to go up 26-22. Struthers then went on an 8-0 run to take a two point lead before a Doug Foster buzzer-beater tied the game at 30-30 entering the fourth quarter.

Leonard came off the Struthers bench to score all seven of his points in the third quarter.

“Ronnie provided a huge lift for us,” Wernicki said. “He’s a sophomore trying to find his way. He gives us great energy, and tonight is something for him to build on.”

Struthers and Niles traded baskets in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 32-32 and 35-35. The Wildcats then scored back-to-back layups by Ryan and Metzka to take a lead they never relinquished.

A Chieffo basket with 1:45 left in the game cut the Struthers lead to 39-37. Niles eventually gained possession with 52 seconds left and worked the clock down to three seconds before a missed jump shot from inside the arc helped Struthers seal the win.

“I can’t ask for more out of my team, they played really hard and really smart basketball tonight,” Niles coach Doug Foster said. “Struthers has the shooters, they are more athletic than us and we were right there.”

“It’s been a tough season record-wise, but I can accept a loss when our kids give it their all like they did the past two games.”

Meanwhile, Wernicki called the win “a total team effort” and hopes his team learns from the close finish.

“We didn’t rebound well, we were careless with the basketball and at times we took some bad shots against Niles’ zone,” Wernicki said. “But again, a lot of our mistakes were due to the hard play by Niles. We have to expect that type of competition the rest of the year.”

Struthers returns to action Friday with a home game against Hubbard. Niles hopes to rebound when it travels to Poland.

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