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Joe Mihalich has persevered 17 years for this moment. The wait is over.

Mihalich spent nearly two decades as an assistant at La Salle University, hoping to get his chance as a Division I head coach. Niagara gave him that chance last spring and the Mihalich era begins tonight when the Purple Eagles open their season by hosting the University at Buffalo (7; Empire, Radio 1520).

"I'm really excited and I've got a lot of reasons to be," Mihalich said Thursday. "My buddies keep reminding me I'm living the dream. I have a great bunch of kids to do it with. They come every day to practice with wide eyes and you can hardly ask them to do any more."

Mihalich, 41, inherited a much better team than most new coaches get. Jack Armstrong was fired after last year's 14-13 season, but left behind nine returnees. Four of them -- point guard Jeremiah Johnson, forwards Alvin Young and Mike Piwerka and center Kevin Jobity -- made at least 14 starts last year and will start tonight along with junior college transfer Terry Edwards.

Niagara is likely to run much more than in the past. The Purple Eagles showed signs of that by scoring 110 points in each of their two exhibition games.

"You play to your personnel's strengths," Mihalich said. "We're not a bunch of slow, halfcourt, clumsy, plodding guys. It's a fairly athletic and talented team."

NU officials are hoping for a good crowd to watch that team in the first game in the new-look Gallagher Center. A $1.2 million renovation has given the 3,200-seat facility a major upgrade.

All the old wooden bleacher seating has been replaced, with chairbacks installed on one side and purple-molded plastic bleachers in the rest of the arena. A new parquet floor has also been installed.

The Purple Eagles only got into the building to practice within the last week. They have spent much of the preseason across campus at NU's Kiernan Center and played exhibition games at Nazareth College in Rochester and Lewiston-Porter High School.

This, however, is nothing new to Mihalich. While at La Salle last year, the Explorers barnstormed around Philadelphia while their on-campus facility, Hayman Hall, was renovated. La Salle practiced at various area high schools and played games at the old Spectrum, nearly an hour from campus.

"It's been kind of funny to see them go through exactly what we did at La Salle last year," Mihalich said. "We're on the Kiernan Court sharing with the women's (basketball) team and the volleyball team. We tell our wing men to run their plays wide and they're bumping into the walls."

UB's players, meanwhile, will be trying not to bump into each other as seven newcomers make their debut. All but two of the Bulls are freshmen or sophomores.

"Going into a new arena with all that excitement, it will be interesting to see how we respond to it," said UB coach Tim Cohane. "This is like going into a snake pit and it could be very intimidating."

Cohane's team lost 87 percent of its offense with the loss of seven lettermen. Included were the graduations of Rasaun Young and Mike Martinho, two of the top three scorers in school history.

"Niagara has two fifth-year guys (Jobity and Piwerka) and you can't be more experienced than that," Cohane said. "We're so raw, there's no question we're rebuilding. But we really feel whatever we'll be this year, we'll be twice as good next year and three times as good the third year."

"Tim Cohane is not a millionaire for nothing," Mihalich cracked, referring to the UB coach's past success working on Wall Street in his pre-coaching days. "He's got the barracuda in him. He's telling everybody he's no good and rebuilding, but I feel this game is a battle and a war."

To Mihalich, it will also be the culmination of a dream.

"Everything is happening so fast that, in all honesty, I haven't had time to really stop and individualize it and think about the fact it's my first game," he said. "I'm just looking at it that it's our team's first game. There's no time to stop and think about anything else."