By Joe Scalzo
Call it the Driver’s seat.
After Fitch’s 16-point lead dwindled to one early in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s game, the Falcons turned to their senior guard and said, in effect, “It’s time to be more selfish.”
“The game was starting to slip away in the fourth quarter a little bit and my teammates got in my head and were telling me, ‘Jessie, you’ve got to take over; you’ve got to shoot the ball a little bit more,’” Driver said.
Added coach Brian Beany, “He kind of has that innate sense in him where, if things are going a little south, he sees he needs to take over a little bit.”
Driver scored seven of Fitch’s next nine points to extend the lead to five, then made two free throws with less than 20 seconds left to seal a 73-66 victory over visiting Niles.
“It was a great game, no question,” Niles coach Ron Price said. “They’re [Fitch] a veteran unit with a really, really, really good player who has a really good supporting cast.
“They made some plays down the stretch and so did we. I’m proud of the effort but we expected to come here tonight and be successful.”
Driver finished with 19 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists — a strong, but pretty typical outing for him. He led the team in all three categories last season and while he stands just 6-feet tall (and can’t dunk anything bigger than a volleyball), his ability to leap quickly gives him an edge under the basket.
“He’s a really unselfish player,” Beany said. “He passes up a lot of good looks to give somebody a better look.”
Alex Difrancesco added 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Falcons (3-0, 3-0 All-American Conference American Division), who will play at perennial conference power Poland on Tuesday night.
“This next game will tell us a lot about our team,” Driver said.
Fitch jumped out to a 15-5 lead after the first quarter and extended the advantage to 16 in the opening minute of the third quarter, but the Red Dragons got hot from there, making six 3-pointers in the second half.
Unfortunately for Niles, it wasn’t seven. Trailing 69-66 in the final minute, the Red Dragons missed an open 3-pointer and Mike Butcher hit two free throws on the other end. Driver then stole the ball on Niles’ next possession, clinching the game with two more free throws with 18.8 seconds left.
“We had a chance to tie it and that’s all I can ask from the kids,” Price said. “I think a lot of people thought [Fitch] might bump it [the lead] up but we talked at halftime that one good quarter would get us back in it.
“One shot here, one shot there and we’re on the winning side.”
Cameron Kane scored 19 points off the bench and Justin Lopes added 17 points, four rebounds and three steals for the Red Dragons (2-2, 1-2). Marcus Hill added 12 points.
Quincy Higgins had 19 points for the Falcons and Butcher had 12 points.
Fitch already has wins over Howland and Canfield this season. If the Falcons can beat Poland (which already has a 66-45 win over Niles), they’ll prove they’re among the Valley’s best teams.
“We’ve really set the bar high,” Driver said. “We don’t want to rule out the possibility of going undefeated, to be honest. We never want to say we’re going to lose a game, so our expectations are as high as they can get.”