LEWISTON – There’s something about a sophomore season that can throw a player off kilter and Juan’ya Green, last year’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year, had found himself in the jaws of a slump.
Green came into Niagara’s conference home opener against Marist on Thursday night having made just 10 of his last 36 shots. His assist count was down. Something seemed missing from his game. The player who carved teams apart off the dribble last year appeared tentative, less inclined to go on the attack.
With almost two weeks since the last game, there was time to reassess. It stood to reason that all his teammates would benefit if Green became more assertive on the offensive end and penetrated to create his own shot or lure defenders away from his teammates. And the benefits of such an approach were evident as Green scored 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting and handed out five assists in a 94-72 joyride over Marist before 1,159 at the Gallagher Center.
Niagara (5-7, 2-1) bolted out to a 13-0 lead as Green twice scored on drives. His first seven baskets of the night came in the paint. It looked like old times for a player who scored a career-high 35 against Fairfield last year.
“I just kept going off what my coaches were saying,” Green said. “They’re saying I might have bad games shooting but keep shooting and make plays for your team.”
“One of the last things I said to Juan’ya – I’m not taking any credit for this, he’s a player, but I did say ‘be aggressive tonight,’ and he was,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “If there’s anything you want to say to criticize Juan’ya is sometimes he’s too nice a guy. He’s got to be a little nastier. He’s got to be like Ameen, because Ameen’s not nice at all.”
Mihalich was talking about Ameen Tanksley, a sophomore swingman with an affinity for the three-point shot that’s complemented by a desire to mix it up inside. Tanksley struck for his third double-double of the season with 22 points and 12 rebounds, Antoine Mason added 17 points and Malcolm Lemmons produced 11 off the bench as the Purple Eagles shot at least 50 percent in both halves and 52.2 percent for the game.
Marist (4-10, 1-2) got 17 points out of sophomore forward Chavaughn Lewis, one of the building blocks of a young Red Foxes team.
The victory gives Niagara a share of the MAAC lead three games into the season for the first time since 2008-09. They’ll get a good idea where they stand in the overall picture when Fairfield visits Saturday afternoon on the heels of Thursday’s rout of Canisius.
When was the last time Niagara played? On Dec. 21 at Notre Dame. It looked it as if the Purple Eagles and the Red Foxes combined to miss the game’s first 10 shots from the field. But then Niagara pulled out the WD40, loosened up its collective shooting stroke and went on a rampage that opened a resounding 51-30 halftime lead.
Marist looked like the team that hadn’t played in two weeks instead of as recently as New Year’s Eve. The Red Foxes missed their first 10 shots and didn’t push their zero off the scoreboard until an Eric Truog layup with 12:37 remaining put a dimple in Niagara’s 13-0 lead.
The Purple Eagles rarely relented while cashing 20 of their final 32 shots in the half. They scored 20 points off 11 Marist turnovers and pounded the interior for 30 points in the paint. A Tanksley garbage basket out of a scramble opened a 36-20 advantage. When Marist crept within 10, Niagara unleashed a 15-4 blitz that concluded with Green’s picturesque buzzer-beating layup off a hesitation dribble.