By Steve Ruman
As members of the All-American Conference’s American Division, Niles and Hubbard met twice during the regular season, and both times the Red Dragons managed to grind out low-scoring wins.
On Tuesday night in a Division II sectional semifinal at Veterans Gymnasium, the third time proved to be the charm for the Eagles.
Led by a balanced offensive attack which saw four players score in double figures, Hubbard built an early 15-point lead, then held on to defeat the Red Dragons, 63-60.
The Eagles (6-17) play at Canfield in a sectional final Saturday night.
Isiah Scott came off the bench to lead Hubbard with 14 points. Derek Kopanic scored 12 for the Eagles, while Rocco Jones and Cole Bencetic each chipped in with 10.
Niles (10-13) was paced by seniors James Tate (15 points) and Justin Lopes (14 points).
Hubbard watched its early 15-point lead completely vanish in the third quarter before mounting its own rally. Trailing by three, the Red Dragons had three shots from beyond the arc in the final 10 seconds, but misfired each time.
“We had two very hard-fought games against Niles earlier this year, and we came up short both times,” said Hubbard coach Rick Fox. “For our kids to come out and respond the way they did tonight on the road says a lot about their character and determination. They fought through a lot of adversity as of late, but they didn’t let that bother them tonight.”
Backed by a stingy defense, the Eagles raced out to a 14-2 lead midway through the first quarter, then led 21-8 at the end of the period. Kopanic hit a pair of 3-pointers during the early spurt, while Adam Hammond scored five of his six points during the first two minutes.
“Our defense was our offense early on,” Fox said. “We were really playing strong defensively and that led to some fast breaks and some easy baskets on our end.”
Lopes caught fire for the Red Dragons in the second period, scoring 11 points and helping Niles cut its deficit to 34-32 at the break.
Niles then scored five straight points to open the second half for its first lead, 37-34. The Red Dragons eventually led 43-38 and took a 47-46 advantage into the final period.
“We dug ourselves such a hole in the first quarter,” said Niles coach Ron Price. “We had looks. We just missed so many layups.
“We fought back and got into the game, and I’m proud of our kids for doing so.”
The fourth quarter opened with Kopanic hitting a 3-pointer, giving Hubbard a 49-47 advantage. The Eagles held the lead for most of the period before Niles tied it at 60 on a Tate 3-pointer. But Jones made a driving layup, Kopanic hit a foul shot and Hubbard prevailed.
Like Niles, Canfield defeated Hubbard twice during the regular season.
“They always say that beating a team three times in one season is tough to do,” Fox said. “That proved to be true tonight, let’s hope it carries over to Saturday.”