By Steve Ruman
Niles coach Ron Price has a message for teams who will face Struthers down the road, including those who will see the Wildcats in the upcoming tournament.
“They’re a dangerous team right now — they’re going to be a tough draw for whoever gets them down the road,” Price said.
Price and his Red Dragons on Friday got a first-hand look at the new and improved Wildcats. In a hard-fought game which included 10 lead changes and eight ties, Struthers eventually held on for a 61-58 road win at War Memorial Gymnasium.
The victory — Struthers’ fourth in its last five games — lifts the Wildcats’ record to 8-12 (5-4 All-American Conference, American Division). Niles falls to 11-9 (5-4).
One month ago, Niles won at Struthers, 63-57.
Dave Stewart came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points for the Wildcats, including a couple of key free throws to seal the win. Ray’Quan Phifer added 12 points for the winners, while Temeko Holness scored eight points and pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.
Ray Russ lit up the scoreboard for a game-high 26 points. The Niles senior was a perfect 12-for-12 from the free-throw line. James Tate (12 points) was the only other Red Dragon to reach double figures.
The game’s back-and-forth nature occurred during the first three quarters of play. Struthers scored the first basket of the final period on a three-pointer by Kyle George. The bucket gave the Cats a 43-40 advantage which they would never surrender.
Struthers eventually built its lead to seven points at 60-53, but a 3-pointer by Tate and a basket by Chris Parry brought Niles to within 60-58 with under a second to go.
Out of desperation, Price called a timeout even though he knew his team had none to call. A technical was assessed to the Niles bench, and Stewart hit a free throw. Struthers then inbounded the ball and the clock expired.
“We knew we didn’t have any timeouts left,” Price confessed. “We knew they’d get a free throw out of it, but we just wanted to force them to have to set up an inbounds play in hopes of a steal and a miracle shot.
“We played hard. We have nothing to be ashamed of. This was just a good game.”
Struthers coach Joe Savko noted that after a rough start to the season, his troops are beginning to gel.
“We’re starting to figure things out at the right time,” Savko said. “We’re playing defense much harder, and it’s creating good things at the other end of the court . We weren’t very successful early on, but these kids kept fighting and they’ve come around.”
Savko was especially pleased with the play of Stewart.
“Dave does a great job of providing senior leadership. Everyone on this team respects what he does,” Savko said.
Struthers returns to action Tuesday when it hosts Girard. Niles visits Canfield next Friday.