This wasn't one of those championship game thrillers and that's probably a good thing. Maybe a blowout was the only way Niagara could avoid another dose of the heartache it's endured all these years.
HSBC Arena was the site for a coronation Monday night. For the first time, the Purple Eagles are champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference largely because of three seniors now forever etched in the storied 99-year history of NU basketball.
Juan Mendez, Alvin Cruz and David Brooks did it. They ended the Purple Eagles' torturous, 35-year NCAA Tournament drought in a clutch performance destined to go down as one of the best ever by a Big 4 team.
Mendez dominated both ends of the floor, collecting 27 points and 13 rebounds, while Brooks and Cruz also were standouts as Niagara pounded Rider, 81-59, Monday night in the championship game of the MAAC Tournament.
The Purple Eagles (20-9) are going to the Big Dance for the first time since 1970, when Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy led the way.
Mendez, the Montreal native who is NU's No. 2 all-time scorer behind Murphy, was named the tourney's Most Valuable Player. Brooks and Cruz were also sensational as Niagara recorded the most lopsided title-game victory in the MAAC's 24-year history.
"Without a doubt, the story (of the three seniors) is written," said coach Joe Mihalich, whose seven-year quest for another NCAA banner in the Gallagher Center rafters has finally been completed. "It took 35 years for Niagara University. God hope it's not going to take 35 more to do it again, but everybody will always remember these three seniors."
Cruz had 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists while Brooks chipped in 12 points and equaled his career high with nine assists. Both made the all-tourney team. Sophomore guard Lorenzo Miles also had a huge game with 16 points and put the defensive clamps on Rider senior Jerry Johnson, who was held to 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
"We did it, baby," Cruz roared. "I'm so happy that we did it as seniors in our last chance and I'm so happy for coach Mihalich. He deserves it just like we do."
A raucous Purple-clad crowd of 6,543 came dressed in its Monday best for the national telecast. Hundreds of students performed the school's long-awaited court-storming at the final buzzer.
Mihalich's 80-year-old mother, Dolores, sat in the first row behind the NU bench wearing her purple Niagara sweater and joined the crowd in every standing ovation they accorded the Purple Eagles. Dolores Mihalich, who has colon cancer, has been in town after coming from Philadelphia with Mihalich's brother, Matt.
"Coach deserves it more than we do," said Mendez, wearing a Canadian flag over his shoulders. "He's been through a lot in his life, in his career, with his mom. I wanted to get this for him, for the rest of the team, for Niagara Falls and for Buffalo."
Niagara becomes the fourth Big 4 men's team to go to the NCAAs since 1970, joining the 1978 and 2000 St. Bonaventure squads and the 1996 Canisius team that won the MAAC title in Albany by beating Fairfield. The Purple Eagles figure to be a No. 13, 14 or 15 seed when pairings are announced Sunday night for their NCAA game March 17 or 18.
The celebration was a wild one. The fans howled the lyrics to Queen's "We Are the Champions" as Mendez took the MAAC championship trophy and paraded it around the court over his head as if it were the Stanley Cup. Then the players took turns cutting down the nets, leaving the last strand for Mihalich to snip and hold aloft to the roaring crowd.
Niagara had lost two of the last three MAAC finals but Mendez set the tone with a dunk 20 seconds into the game. He had 18 points at halftime, including a three-pointer in the final two seconds that gave Niagara a 42-30 lead at the break, and hit 11 of his first 13 shots.
"Mendez played at a high level tonight and that's trouble for us," said Rider coach Don Harnum. "There's not many guys like that in this league or the Big East for that matter.
Midway through the first half, Mendez fouled 7-foot Rider center Steve Castleberry and slammed him to the court, then jawed with the 6-foot Johnson.
"I was feeling it and nobody was going to stop me," Mendez said. "If they were going to come like that in our house, we didn't want it to be easy."
"I knew he was going to bring it tonight, really bring it," Brooks said. "He was the player of the year in the league and I told him he was going to have to play like it and he did."
Niagara's zone defense confused Rider, which scored 113 points on Niagara in an overtime win nine days ago. The Broncs hit only 24 of 61 shots.
"I can't believe it," said a smiling Mihalich. "We can give up 59 points in a half."
"People counted us out and said we can't play defense," Mendez said. "But we knew we had it in us and we had to gut it out at tournament time."
Rider got within seven early in the second half but a 15-2 Niagara run put the Purple Eagles up, 57-37, with 14 minutes left. The margin never got under 16 the rest of the way. Mihalich pulled the seniors with 13 seconds left and joined them in a group hug on the sideline.
"How about this? We're cutting down the nets," a wide-eyed Mihalich said on the floor a few minutes after the buzzer. "It's surreal. This will be the best 10 days of our lives coming up. . . . I can't wait."e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org