By Steve Ruman
Four days after seeing his team lose to arch-rival Howland by 40 points, Niles coach Ron Price knew the Red Dragons were still showing the effects of the blowout.
“That was obviously our worse game of the year by far, and there was a bit of a carryover this week,” Price said. “We had to get that out of our system. We had to move ahead.”
It took a little while to shake the cobwebs, but on Tuesday night the Red Dragons were eventually able to put the loss behind them. The result was a come-from-behind 56-53 home win over Liberty.
The victory lifts Niles 7-4, while the Leopards fall to 5-5.
Trailing 39-34 with just over 2 minutes left in the third quarter, the Dragons went on a 12-0 run to gain control. Senior Ray Russ, who scored a team-high 16 points, scored eight points during the spurt. Russ eventually fouled out with 4:44 left in the game.
Justin Lopes scored 13 to help the Niles cause, while Kymone Gamble chipped in with nine points.
Liberty senior Darrien Underwood had to fight through his own foul trouble to score a game-high 17 points and pull down a game-high 14 rebounds. Underwood scored 10 quick points before being forced to sit the final 5:30 of the second quarter after picking up his third foul.
Asim Pleas scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter to keep Liberty in the game until the final buzzer. Cameron Clark helped the Leopards’ cause with 14 points.
Down 39-38 entering the fourth quarter, Niles took its first lead of the game when Russ hit a 3-pointer five seconds into the period. Twenty seconds later, Russ hit another 3. A Chris Parry steal and a Kymone Gamble layup quickly extended the Dragons’ lead to 46-39.
“We have our moments where we don’t shoot very well, then we respond with some big shots,” Price said. “Ray (Russ) hit some big 3s tonight. Very timely. That spurt was a huge momentum lift.”
After building a seven-point lead on three occasions, Niles had trouble sealing the deal from the free-throw line. The Dragons were just 1 of 7 from the line in the final period, and 9 of 20 for the game.
“There have been nights where our foul shooting has been great and it has helped us win, and other nights where we’ve been awful,” Price said. “Overall we’re under 50 percent, and that’s not going to get it done with our upcoming schedule.”
After a Parry free throw gave Niles a three-point lead with under 10 seconds to play, Liberty missed an opportunity to send the game into overtime when a last-second shot went off the rim.
“That’s our third loss in four games that has come down to a last shot,” Liberty coach Dan Bubon said. “All very tough losses, all on the road.”
Still, Bubon remained positive about his team’s future.