By Steve ruman
After a strong start to the season, the Niles McKinley High basketball team hit a recent snag. The Red Dragons lost four of six while having their rhythm somewhat disrupted due to inclement weather.
Tuesday night, the Dragons regrouped and earned a hard-fought 61-50 home victory over Campbell Memorial. With the win, Niles (11-8) assures itself of at least a .500 regular-season record after finishing 3-18 a year ago.
Campbell falls to 6-12.
Niles was paced by the tandem of James Tate and Ray Russ. Tate scored 18 points, including 11 in the third period. His back-to-back 3-pointers at the start of the second half erased a four-point halftime deficit. His third three of the period gave Niles a lead it never relinquished.
Russ scored a team-high 22, including 12 in the final period to help seal the deal.
Campbell was paced by D.J. Harrison, who scored a game-high 25. George Billiris, the only other Red Devils’ starter to score, added nine points, while Jeremy Vasquez came off the bench to tally 12.
“We shot so poorly in the first half, but we were only down by four at the half,” Niles coach Ron Price said. “In the locker room, we asked our guys, ‘Who’s going to step up make some shots?’ As it turned out, we had a lot of contributions.”
Price was especially pleased with Tate’s play.
“This is a kid who has played hard all year long,” Price said. “His play at the start of the third quarter really ignited us, and it helped set the tempo for us on both ends.”
Russ scored nine points in the early stages of the final quarter to help Niles build a 53-44 lead. But back-to-back baskets by Harrison and a layup by Vasquez cut the Dragons’ lead to 53-50 with 2 minutes remaining.
Niles — which has struggled at times this year making free throws — then iced the game from the foul line. The Red Dragons made 15 of 21 foul shots overall and eight of 10 in the final 90 seconds after having their lead cut to three.
“Obviously, that was huge,” Price said. “We know we’re going to be involved in a lot of close games. We have to continue that type of shooting if we’re going to be successful.”
It was another frustrating finish to what Campbell coach Mike Szenborn described as a tough-luck season.
“We were down two, and we missed two free throws and turned the ball over,” he said. “We’ve been inconsistent all season, but we’re young. We’re a work in progress. We just have to learn to finish games.”