LEWISTON – Last season’s book on defending Niagara could have printed with three words: Contest the perimeter. There were no inside threats to keep opposing defenses honest. If the Purple Eagles caught fire from behind the arc they could be trouble. Otherwise, not so much.
This season is different. This season Niagara has options. And those options came to the fore in Tuesday night’s 86-69 victory over St. Francis (Pa.) in the home opener at the Gallagher Center.
True freshman forward T.J. Cline and redshirt sophomore forward Joe Thomas combined for 23 points and 15 boards as Niagara rebounded from its season-opening loss at Oregon State. Those are significant numbers under any circumstances but exceedingly so when one considers that Niagara averaged less than 10 points and 10 rebounds per game from its four interior players combined last season.
“It was just great to see Joe Thomas get eight points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. “Without a little bit of foul trouble there, who knows. Might have had a double-double, would have had a double-double.
“And then maybe the star of the night was T.J. To come in there and give us that boost in the first half …”
Cline, the son of Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, displayed a diverse inside-outside game while scoring 11 of his points in helping Niagara to a 45-24 halftime bulge. He finished a 13-1 Niagara run by calling for a Marvin Jordan pass in the low post and then powering down the baseline for a lay-in. A couple of possessions later, the 6-7 Cline accepted an offensive inbounds pass beyond the key and pulled the trigger in a flash, nailing his second three of the young night and looking like the former guard that he is. He moved to the front line last year at Plano (Texas) West High after previously playing guard.
“Last year my senior year of high school I had to play the 4 position and they really worked with me on my post moves and just trying to use your body,” Cline said.
Cline picked up from where Thomas had started. Ameer Tanksley opened the game with a shot from behind the arc, no surprise given Niagara knocked down 16 in its season-opening loss at Oregon State. But this one misfired and Thomas converted off the rebound. He would go on to account for three of Niagara’s first five baskets, perhaps dropping a hint that the Purple Eagles didn’t have to live or die from beyond the arc.
Rebounding hasn’t been one of Niagara’s strengths in recent seasons, making the disparity on the glass in the first half — a 29-11 Purple Eagles advantage — all the more astounding. St. Francis (0-2) didn’t pick up a single offensive board in the opening half.
St. Francis came out of a Niagara timeout with a chance to close within six but missed two free throws with 12:48 remaining. The Purple Eagles regrouped from there with Juan’ya Green, last year’s Metro Atlantic Freshman of the Year, at the lead. He hit a jumper and a three after not scoring his first field goal of the game until 4:30 into the second half. When Cline capped an eight-point Niagara burst with his third three the lead was back to 64-48.
The added interior dimension cast Niagara in a whole new light.
“I think if our perimeter guys are not hitting anything we can go inside and if our inside’s not going our perimeter helps us out,” Green said. “I think it’s getting better every day.”
How good can it be?
“Very good,” Green said. “Good enough to go to the MAAC championship I hope.”
Redshirt sophomore Antoine Mason of Niagara led all scorers with 25. Green had 17 and Cline, who had 11 in his college debut against Oregon State, finished with 15 to go with seven boards. Tanksley added 12.