Four years ago, in the springtime, Rob Lanier flew home to Buffalo to interview for the Niagara head coaching job. He was 29 years old. He was too young and he knew it. Still, he was happy for the opportunity, grateful that Niagara, which had given him his first assistant's job seven years earlier, had anointed him a candidate.

"I never thought I'd get the job, to be honest with you," Lanier said Sunday. "And fortunately for them, they didn't hire me, because they wouldn't be where they are right now. I thought I was ready. But there's a difference between being ready and being prepared. They got the right guy, a guy who was prepared."

That guy was a Philadelphia native named Joe Mihalich. It's hard to imagine now, but there were people -- and yes, I was among them -- who questioned the move, who felt Mihalich was an uninspired choice to replace Jack Armstrong as the Niagara basketball coach.

Mihalich had been an assistant for 17 years at La Salle. The program had stumbled in recent years. Mihalich hadn't brought in many distinguished recruits since the Lionel Simmons era. There was dwindling evidence that he could still recruit, and no evidence that he would thrive as a head man.

In four years, he has answered all the questions. Mihalich has done a remarkable job at Niagara. He has been coach of the year in the MAAC. He has won two regular-season titles. He is the first coach to have four straight winning seasons since Taps Gallagher did it 40 years ago -- and they named a gym after Gallagher.

Now, at last, Mihalich has the Purple Eagles in the MAAC Tournament final. Sunday afternoon, Niagara won a conference semifinal for the first time in nine years, wearing down a courageous Canisius team, 70-60, earning a chance to face Lanier's Siena team tonight for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

It has been a long time coming for Mihalich, a decent, congenial man who once admitted he doesn't listen to the radio while driving to work. He fantasizes about his team making the game-winning shot in the MAAC tourney final.

"It's one step away from the dream," Mihalich said. "It's funny. People ask me about getting bumped in the first or second round. It's heartbreaking no matter when you get bumped. If we don't win (tonight), it'll be just as painful. But getting to the final is the hardest part."

Niagara hasn't been to the NCAAs since 1970, when Calvin Murphy was a senior and Frank Layden the coach. This is Mihalich's best team yet, an affirmation of his recruiting skills and a reply to critics who felt he was too reliant on guards and an up-tempo style.

Recruiting? Mihalich recruited Rochester native James Reaves away from Canisius and UB, convincing him he could play right away at Niagara. Reaves, a 6-foot-8 forward with soft hands and quick feet, had 17 points and 19 rebounds in the semifinal. He was the difference, the best player on the floor.

Mihalich and his staff found an unknown Las Vegas kid named Tremmell Darden, who was so desperate for suitors he sent resumes to 128 Division I coaches. Niagara read it, sent for tapes and couldn't believe its eyes. Darden, a 6-4 sophomore, had 13 of his game-high 21 points in the second half Sunday.

Niagara beat out MAAC rival Fairfield for freshman point guard Alvin Cruz by agreeing to take his high school teammate and fellow Puerto Rican, Juan Mendez. Mendez, a 6-7 forward, had 10 points and seven rebounds against Canisius.

Reaves and Mendez gave Mihalich a physical post presence, something he'd never had. Suddenly, they could win when his guards weren't hot from outside. They could win ugly. That's what happened Sunday. Playing Canisius for the third time in 15 days, Niagara was ragged offensively, shooting 29.5 percent. Still, it won.

"I refuse to personalize things like this," Mihalich said. "This is a great thing for Niagara University and for our team. I was lucky to go five times to the NCAA Tournament as a coach at La Salle. I played in it twice (for La Salle, under Paul Westhead). I wasn't much of a player. But there's nothing like it, nothing like the NCAA Tourna
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Sullivan: Siena's Lanier took over for Orr
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The last time Niagara made it, the Eagles were overshadowed by St. Bonaventure's run to the Final Four with Bob Lanier. Now they're a step away and another Lanier is standing in their way. Siena's Rob Lanier, Buffalo native and distant cousin of the Hall of Famer, is looking to get there in his first year as a head man -- by winning four games in four days.

Lanier recognizes the irony. After finishing his playing career at St. Bonaventure in 1990, he was as an assistant at Niagara while working toward his master's in counseling. He served as a Bona assistant under Jim Baron, spent time as an assistant at Rutgers, then took a job at Texas under Rick Barnes. He interviewed for the Bona job last spring, but they were looking for head coaching experience.

He took the Siena job when Louis Orr left, and it's been quite an experience. Lanier was being roasted in town after the Saints lost their last three games of the regular season. But they've hit their stride. This time, at 33, Lanier was the right man for the job.

"I've been humbled by my experiences because I've been around some great coaches this year," Lanier said, "and I realize how hard it is to be good. I mean, it's hard and it requires a lot of work. I knew that, but you don't really know it until you're in the seat. Every day, somebody's getting fired, and somebody's a rising star. And it is unfortunate. Because of that, people don't appreciate guys who are really good coaches."

Then you look up and realize that the Niagara guy has become one of the best coaches in school history, a heck of a coach and an all-around good Joe.