Two teams just beginning to find their sea legs look to set sail on their first winning streaks of the season tonight when the University at Buffalo and Niagara University meet up at Alumni Arena in the final non-conference Big 4 basketball game of the season.
For Niagara (3-5) this is the last of five consecutive road games, a stretch that began against St. Bonaventure in Rochester and included stops at Iona, Central Michigan and Loyola (Md.). The young Purple Eagles may have scored the breakthrough they were seeking in snapping a three-game losing streak with a 62-61 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference victory over the Greyhounds, the league’s preseason favorite. That win raised Niagara to 1-1 in conference with arguably their toughest MAAC road swing of the season out of the way.
“I’d have to look it up, but in my time here I can’t remember a tougher nine-game stretch to start the season,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, whose next win will be No. 250. “We were in that tournament where we played three really good teams, we played Oregon State and Bucknell and New Mexico State. Our conference games were the two best teams on the road and then you throw in Bonaventure in Rochester and UB at UB. That’s a tough stretch. I think in the long run it’s going to make us a better team.”
The up-tempo, guard-oriented Purple Eagles got 19 points and five assists fromJuan’ya Green in the conquest of Loyola. Sophomore guard Antoine Mason added 14 and leads Niagara with an 18.6 average.
“I think this year our team has been better at coming together as a team and not putting our heads down when we’re down at halftime and stuff like that,” Green said. “Our defense has gotten a lot better.”
Niagara’s challenge tonight will be in containing UB’s low-post game. Bulls junior forward Javon McCrea went off for a career-high 31 points in Wednesday’s 72-52 drubbing of Milwaukee, connecting on 15 of 19 shots from the field. He’s averaging 17.7 points with no one else in double figures.
“McCrea’s terrific,” Mihalich said. “He’s as good as anybody we’ll play all year long. I mean, he’s a really, really tough guy to control.”
Niagara’s down-low presence has been aided by the arrival of 6-8 freshman T.J. Cline, a forward who, like UB’s Will Regan, can take his game inside or out. The Purple Eagles will receive another boost inside when fifth-year senior transfer Devon White (6-8, 240) is cleared to return from an Achilles injury suffered over the summer. He could be in uniform by the end of the month.
While McCrea dazzled against Milwaukee, the most encouraging performance for the Bulls (3-7) probably came from junior swingman Auraum Nuiriankh. He struck for his first career double-double with 13 points and a resounding 15 rebounds after a rather silent beginning to the season.
“They just kept coming,” Nuiriankh said. “I think with my rebounding it kind of got me into a better rhythm of the game. I was able to score a little bit more than I had been normally.”
Said UB coach Reggie Witherspoon: “We needed to have him contribute in a way that I think gave him a presence on the team. He’s been trying. His shot has been off and he’s a good shooter, and sometimes that can cause your mind to drift a little bit. He found other ways. His defense was very good. He rebounded it well, got some steals, moved the ball well. It’s good to see that. We really need it.”
Tempo will have a lot to do with who comes out on top tonight. Tipoff is 7.
“It’s going to be big,” Witherspoon said. “I want to say we want to control it. It doesn’t mean we’re walking up the court but we have to control it and run when it’s to our advantage. I know they just want to get up and down the court, and we have to find a way, but in these games it’s hard because in these games every time somebody scores there’s cheering because they’re going to have people rooting for them too.”
In other Big 4 action, St. Bonaventure (5-2) has a 3:05 start at Arkansas State (4-3), while Canisius college plays at Marist on Sunday.