LEWISTON — The cheers resonated throughout the locker room when Niagara’s NIT pairing was flashed on the screen. If you’re going to take a swing in the postseason, you might as well swing at a team with a storied tradition that resides in a big-name conference.
The Purple Eagles will hit the road as soon as possible today with the hopes of preparing on site for Tuesday night’s first-round game against Maryland. The Terps went 22-12 and probably fell one victory shy of making the NCAA Tournament field. They also beat the two top finishers in the ACC, Duke (twice, including in the ACC Tournament) and Miami.
Meanwhile, Canisius (18-13) has drawn Elon (21-11) of the Southern Conference and will host the Phoenix at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Koessler Athletic Center in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. It will be the first postseason appearance for the Griffs since the 1996 NCAAs.
Niagara (19-13) qualified for the NIT by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title after being picked fifth in the preseason poll. The Purple Eagles will be making their 14th NIT appearance and their first since 2009. Niagara is 9-13 in NIT games but advanced to the 1972 final where it was beaten by – Maryland.
“These guys have defied the odds all year long,” coach Joe Mihalich said. “We weren’t supposed to be as good as we are. We weren’t supposed to finish first. People just keep telling us we’re not supposed to do this or we’re not supposed to do that. We’re not supposed to be in the NIT and we are.
“[Something] we talked with the team about is just where we’re at as a program,” Mihalich said. “Like I said to the guys, it’s time now to get one of these. Now I don’t know if we can. It’s going to be a great challenge. But it’s time to get a game like this.”
It’ll be a homecoming for junior guard Malcolm Lemmons.
“It’s going to be fun for me because I’m about a half-hour from the Maryland campus so I’m going to have a lot of friends and family there so it’ll be a good experience,” he said.
The Purple Eagles won their first MAAC regular-season title since 2004-05. And they did it with the youngest team in the conference and the 40th-youngest in the country.
The journey included a resounding, 92-76 ESPN BracketBuster victory over Northwestern State, which went on to earn an NCAA Tournament berth by defeating a 27-win Stephen F. Austin team in the Southland Conference final. Niagara’s NCAA Tournament hopes ended with a 79-73 loss to Iona in the MAAC Tournament semifinals.
Niagara is led by one of the nation’s higher-scoring backcourts in all-MAAC first-teamers Antoine Mason (18.5 ppg) and Juan’ya Green (16.8) – the first teammates in conference history to reach 1,000 points as sophomores.
In Elon, Canisius will face a team that will go into next season with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations. The Phoenix placed two juniors on the SoCon’s 10-man all-conference team, 6-foot-10 center Lucas Troutman and 6-2 guard Jack Isenbarger. Troutman averaged 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks while Isenbarger averaged 13.2 points and ranked among the nation’s top 40 free-throw shooters at 86.5 percent.