LEWISTON – You have to wonder how many of Joe Mihalich’s 250 victories over the years could be attributed to Niagara’s defense. A dozen? Two dozen? Are we already pushing it?
It’s not that the Purple Eagles mail it in when they’re on the faraway part of the floor. But the program’s identity since Mihalich took over 15 years ago has been one of frenetic tempo that renders the shot clock a useless tool. If the opposition is looking for a shootout, Niagara has always been happy to oblige.
That penchant for points made it ironic how the Purple Eagles delivered victory No. 250 to their coach Wednesday night at the Taps Gallagher Center. A young Hartford team wanted no part of the middle of the ring. The Hawks were happy to duck and jab near the ropes. So Mihalich resorted to some defensive wrinkles that quickly changed the pace of the fight and resulted in a 75-59 victory – a score that made it only look like business as usual.
Hartford (5-5) arrived allowing just 61 points a game. Niagara (4-6) surpassed that total with 10:51 remaining thanks to a deadly transition game that fed off 22 turnovers and opened the way for the three. The Hawks were allowing opponents to shoot just 29.2 percent from beyond the arc. Niagara missed six of its first eight and then buried the Hawks by making its next five.
“Going into the game we knew we had to make that team uncomfortable … so I thought in the first half we did what we had to do,” Mihalich said of Niagara’s 17-point halftime advantage. “We made them uncomfortable. Even the shots that were open they normally make I think they were just a little out of rhythm, out of sync.”
Leading scorer Antoine Mason topped Niagara with 19 points, including the basket that quelled a late Hartford run after the Hawks had drawn within 10 with 3:42 remaining. Ameen Tanksley added a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds and Malcolm Lemmons produced 11 points off the bench while playing a solid overall game.
Victory No. 250 was on the minds of the Niagara players since Mihalich moved to the brink two games ago. This was the Purple Eagles’ first home game in 24 days and they were eager to close the deal.
“We knew about it, we kept talking about it before the game,” Mason said. “We had to get it for him.”
“[Mason] reminded the whole team,” Tanksley said. “He put it on the board [in the locker room].”
“In the huddle, everything,” Mason said. “The whole thing was 250.”
“Two-fifty in 14 years; that is a remarkable feat,” said Hartford coach John Gallagher, a fellow Philly native who has known Mihalich since he was 10. “He’s got to be considered one of the best coaches. He really knows how to get his guys to play hard. He does a phenomenal job recruiting. His plan is very, very – in my opinion – it’s detailed. His guys know what they’re doing.
“So to put it in perspective, first how many guys stay in one place 15 years? He’s been offered five or six different jobs, we all know that. He loves the Niagara area. He turned down La Salle, his alma mater. ... He grew up in Philadelphia. He’s from Niagara Falls.”
Mihalich sits in second place on Niagara’s all-time victory list behind the coach for whom the gym is named. Taps Gallagher won 465 games in a 31-year coaching career that began in 1931.
As the first half passed the midway point, Niagara was struggling, plodding, mired in the quicksand that Hartford was throwing on the court. The Hawks had already committed two shot-clock violations. They’d take their shots in transition but otherwise were in no hurry to put it up. It made for the kind of methodical tempo that Niagara despises.
Mihalich sensed as much. With the Purple Eagles trailing 11-10 he sprung a trap press following a three-point play by Tanksley. Niagara forced a 10-second violation and from there everything changed. The Purple Eagles soon went on a 14-0 blitz. They forced nine turnovers the remainder of the half. And when Lemmons recovered a loose ball and banked home a 25-foot three at the buzzer they headed to the locker room with a whopping 37-20 advantage.