By PETE MOLLICA
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
NILES -- Niles McKinley High basketball coach Rick Kover says that you have to play tough and physical when you play in the Metro Athletic Conference.
Struthers High coach John Corey agrees, but felt his team wasn't nearly as physical as Niles on Friday.
The Red Dragons (7-5, 3-3 MAC) behind a 20-point effort from Justin Allen and 15 more from Sean Cleary stopped the Wildcats, 48-43.
"This conference is just so tough," Kover said. "And if you don't play physical basketball you just won't survive. Tonight, I though we did a good job at both ends of the floor."
"We didn't play very well against Campbell this week and I called it a team loss right down to the coaches, but I told them tonight that it was a team win," Kover said.
"We've been starting very slowly all season long and we tried to change things tonight," Kover said. "We had a couple of rugged practices where we really were beating up on each other and the kids responded tonight."
Struthers (6-5, 2-4) was led by Matt Kukura with 12 points.
"It was a physical game tonight, but Niles played much more physical than we did," Corey said.
"They had 36 points in the paint against us and that is totally unacceptable," Corey said.
"They forced us to take shots we didn't want to take, and overall I thought our shot selection wasn't good at all," Corey said.
"We didn't play smart and we gave up way too many easy baskets especially in the first half," Corey said.
Close game early
The contest was close for most of the first half. Struthers jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, but the Red Dragons came back to tie the game at 11-11 at the end of the quarter.
Niles took its first lead 15-13 on an Allen layup and then took the lead for keeps 17-16 on another shot by Allen with 2:33 left in the half. The Dragons pulled to a 21-16 halftime lead.
The Wildcats closed the gap to two points 22-20 early in the third period and still trailed by just two 26-24 with 2:50 remaining before Niles finished up the quarter on a 6-0 run to lead 32-24.
Allen's first two baskets in the fourth quarter kept the Dragons lead at eight points 36-28 and they still led by eight with 1:40 remaining 44-36.
But Struthers made a move and a 3-point shot by Andy Sepesy and another basket by Kukura cut the Niles lead to two points 45-43 with 54.8 seconds.
With 26 seconds remaining and Niles clinging to a 46-43 lead, Cleary came up with a big steal and then Dan Rosenberger made a pair of free throws with 23 seconds left to close out the Wildcats.
"Our kids are never going to quit out there and they showed that in the final quarter when they battled back into the game," Corey added.
Niles shot well from the field hitting on 19 of 41 attempts, while the Wildcats were 15-for-40.
Allen and Cleary combined for 13 of the Dragons 16 points in the final quarter.