NILES - The Salem basketball team has had little trouble getting off to fast starts this year.
The trouble is, the Quakers have had a difficult time closing things out.
So when the Quakers surged out to a 26-11 first quarter lead Tuesday night at Niles, coach Rich Hart had but one message for his team.
"I couldn't stress enough the importance of staying focused," Hart said. "Niles is well-coached and they have some very good athletes. We knew they were going come at us with a run or two."
"We lost a lot of games this year because of collapses down the stretch. We wanted to keep up the intensity, because we didn't want it to happen again."
Though Niles did indeed make several surges at the visitors, none were enough to overcome the early deficit. The result was a 61-45 Salem non-conference win at War Memorial Gymnasium
The victory lifts the Quakers' record to 5-6. Niles falls to 1-10.
Salem was paced by Ryan Bush. The junior scored a game-high 24 points, and also set the tempo of the game with 10 first-quarter points. Bush made five of the Quakers' seven three-pointers.
Trent Kenreigh added 15 points, while Max Wolfgang chipped in with seven points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Niles was led by junior Ray Russ (18 points) and sophomore James Tate (11 points).
Salem wasted little time grabbing control of the game. By forcing several Niles turnovers, the Quakers rushed out to a 13-2 advantage midway through the first period. Most of the early scoring was done inside the paint, but the Quakers converted four shots from beyond the arc during the latter stages of the frame to grab a 15-point advantage.
"We've never played four full quarters of basketball this year," said Niles coach Rick Kover. "Even in our win, we didn't play a complete game. There are parts of each game where we go into a stretch of committing mental errors. We simply must find a way to eliminate those mistakes."
Thanks in large part to an eight-point quarter by Russ, Niles cut its halftime deficit to 33-25. The Red Dragons then used a 9-2 run in the latter stages of the third period to pull to within five points and with possession of the ball with 2:10 remaining in the frame.
However, Niles was hit with a technical foul for an illegal substitution. Salem added to its lead on a free throw. It then converted a three-point play on a Kenreigh steal, layup and foul shot.
From that point forward, Niles never seriously threatened to get back into the contest.
Wolfgang scored five of his seven points in the final period, and also pulled down half of his rebounds during the final eight minutes of play.
"Max did a great job, especially defensively, down the stretch," Hart said. "Once we had the early lead, we knew it was going to come down to us playing strong defense. We had some lulls here and there, but for the most part we did a good job of keeping up the intensity."
"Hopefully, this win serves as a lesson and provides us with momentum as we move into the second half of the season."
Meanwhile, a frustrated Kover found himself searching for answers as his team suffered its eighth consecutive setback.
"The effort is there. The kids care. They don't like what is happening," Kover said. "They are giving us everything they have, but they have to learn how to eliminate the mental errors."
"We're going to get back to work and find a way to turn this thing around. We got two days to get ready for our next opponent."
Salem also won the jayvee game 43-33. Austin Frank had 11 for the Quakers.
Niles returns to All American Conference play Friday when it hosts Austintown Fitch.
Salem will look to even its record Friday when it travels to West Branch.
SALEM: 26 7 12 16 - 61
NILES: 11 14 11 9 - 45
SALEM SCORING: Ryan Bush 8-3-24, Trent Kenreigh 5-4-15, Zach Penick 3-0-6, Max Wolfgang 2-3-7, Anthony Shivers 2-0-4, Zach Economous 1-0-3, Brayden Myers 1-0-2. TEAM TOTALS: 22, 10-15, 61.
NILES SCORING: Tyler Negro 2-0-4, Joe Profanchick 3-2-7, James Tate 4-3-11, Kyle Paden 0-2-2, Ray Russ 7-2-18, Chris Parry 1-1-3. TEAM TOTALS: 17, 9-20, 45.
THREE POINTERS: Salem 7 (Bush 5, Kenreigh, Economous), Niles 2 (Russ 2).