NILES — The Niles High boys basketball team has played its best of the season in the last two games.
Unfortunately those games were against two of the top teams in the All American Conference’s Red Tier — Canfield on Tuesday and Poland on Friday night.
Poland’s Ben Donlow scored 26 points and the Bulldogs knocked in 12 of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter to turn back a determined Niles team, 87-76.
Poland coach Ken Grisdale said Donlow has owned Niles in the Red Dragons’ gymnasium the last three seasons.
“I love playing here,” said Donlow who grabbed a team-high eight rebounds. “I love the atmosphere here. I’ve had the same point and rebound totals all three games in this gym.”
Donlow also took control of the contest and did his best work when his teammates needed him the most.
With the score tied at 62-62, Donlow scored nine of his points down the stretch to help Poland pull away.
“Donlow played well,” Grisdale said. “When he gets to the right place on the floor he can be a force.
“We tried to make some adjustments on the run to get people into the open spaces on the floor and we were able to do that with Bennie [Donlow] who was able to score in close or get to the foul line.”
Poland (11-1, 2-1) had ice in their veins in the final five minutes and made all but one free throw in the final run.
“That’s the sign of a veteran team,” Grisdale said. “We haven’t shot the ball that well from the line during the games but we’ve done well at the end and that’s all that matters.
Niles coach Rick Kover could only shake his head after watching his team play so well the past two games and have nothing to show for it.
“I don’t believe in moral victories,” Kover said. “We played Canfield really close and we just lose in the end. Then we play these guys [Poland] really close and we lose in the end.
“I told the guys, ‘we just have to finish these games.’ There has to come that time we reward ourselves at the end of the basketball game.”
Niles (7-8, 1-3) played even with the Bulldogs behind the strong play of Saul Vaughn who had 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Vaughn was key in finishing off breaking the Poland press and getting to the basket for easy layups.
He led a Niles team that shot 32 of 53 (58 percent) from the field.
Ryan Frantz also kept the Dragons close in the second half when he scored 14 of his 16 points.
But the Bulldogs prevailed with its intense defensive pressure and the confidence to knock down shots.
Wollet and Baker came up big in the final period as well for Poland. Wollet scored seven of his 13 points while Baker also chipped in with seven of his 14 in the final eight minutes.