Sean Cleary converts game-winning toss
John Cullen said that Niles forced turnovers and scored off them.
By ERIC HAMILTON
BOARDMAN -- After missing the first of two free throws with 3.3 seconds remaining and with Thursday night's Division II district semifinal between Canfield and Niles tied at 37-all, Sean Cleary only had one thing racing through his mind before his second shot.
"I just didn't want to miss," Cleary said.
Cleary calmly stepped to the line and sank the second free throw. When Canfield's final shot came up short at the buzzer, Niles stunned the Cardinals 38-37 at Boardman High School.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life," Cleary said. "I wanted this game more than I've ever wanted any other game. We've kind of built a rivalry with Canfield since summer league, so we really wanted to win.
Finishes the job
"I'm so proud of my teammates and how we played tonight," Cleary said. "We had split with Canfield this season and this time we were able to finish the job. We practiced all week for it to come down to the wire and it did."
Niles (14-8) advances to Saturday's district final against top-seeded Salem (19-3). The Quakers swept Niles in the regular season.
What the game lacked in scoring, it more than made up for in excitement and solid defense. No team led by more than five points in the contest, which featured half a dozen lead changes and four ties.
Canfield looked to be taking control in the second quarter as Gurpreet Singh scored five straight points to turn a stalemate into a 14-9 Cardinals lead with 4:36 left in the second quarter.
But Niles hung tough with solid defense and a patient offensive attack. The Red Dragons struggled from 3-point land in the game, but the ones they did convert came at just the right time.
Andrew Cleary's 3
Andrew Cleary drained his third triple of the game with 54 seconds left in the third quarter to gives Niles a 28-27 lead. That advantage was one the Red Dragons would never relinquish.
"We haven't shot the three good percentage-wise all season," Niles coach Ron Price said. "But we've hit some timely ones -- just like we did tonight.
"What have gotten us here are our defense and our ability to hang in there rebounding the ball, despite our small lineup," Price said.
"I'm just so proud of how the kids hung in there and found a way to win," Price said. "We did just enough to move on. Sean is such a competitor and he kind of willed that free throw in. It was a huge team effort."
Canfield tied the game at 32-32 early in the fourth quarter to set up a frantic last four minutes.
Bill Frech canned another timely 3-pointer for Niles to put his team back in front 35-32 with 3:50 remaining in the game.
The Cardinals got within 35-34 with 1:45 left, but Justin Shelton padded the Red Dragons‚ advantage to 36-34 with a free throw.
After a turnover by each team, Shelton added another charity toss with 52 seconds left to put Niles ahead 37-34.
That's when things got even more exciting. Canfield's Joe Carbon drilled a 3-pointer with 11 seconds on the clock to knot the game at 37-37 and presumably sent it into overtime.
However, on Niles next possession, the Cardinals were whistled for a blocking foul with just 3.3 seconds left, sending Cleary to the line, where he sank the game-winner.
"This is one of the toughest losses we've had here," Canfield coach John Cullen said. "We just had to keep some space and force them to the sideline, but they got the call. But it didn't matter because we lost the game ourselves.
"We didn't pass the ball like we normally do and we couldn't use our size advantage inside or our transition game," Cullen said. "Niles forced some turnovers and scored off them and we just didn't do that."