LEWISTON – The Niagara men’s basketball team is maturing faster than anyone ever imagined.
Those annoying freshman mistakes of a year ago, the ones that had Joe Mihalich constantly reaching for Advil? History. Shots that used to crawl in and out of the basket now ring true. This is the kind of Niagara basketball we’ve grown accustomed to under Mihalich, the kind of ball that blossoms into championships.
The Purple Eagles continued their best Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference start since the 1998-99 season with a convincing 87-64 thumping of Siena on Thursday in front of 1,449 at the Gallagher Center. Leading by six points at halftime, Niagara (10-8, 6-1) took its torrid three-point shooting up a notch in the second half. It opened with a crushing 24-7 spurt that turned the game into a laugher and gave them a 26-point lead with 13:33 remaining.
Niagara is in sole possession of first place in the MAAC at least for a day. Iona is 5-1 in the league heading into its game tonight against Fairfield. It’s still early and there’s plenty of basketball left to be played, but things are returning to normal at Niagara.
“It’s getting that way, but we’re far from where we need to be, but I think there’s a good feeling right now,” Mihalich said.
Especially when you’re canning threes at a high rate – Niagara hit 12 of 24 – and converting steals into layups with 30 points off 18 Siena turnovers. Four Purple Eagles finished in double figures, led by sophomores Antoine Mason with 23 points and Juan’ya Green with 21 points and eight assists. Freshman T.J. Cline came off the bench to score 13 points while sophomore Ameen Tanksley added 10 and four assists.
“We have a lot of people competing, which is a good thing,” Mason said. “Everybody is there for each other and we respect each other and everyone has each other’s back.”
Niagara’s transition from boys to men is moving at a rapid pace.
“Are we ahead of schedule? I don’t know what the schedule is,” Mihalich said. “But the team is coming together.”
The Purple Eagles will be the ones causing headaches for MAAC coaches.
“When you look at their team they have three terrific sophomores and Cline is good, he’s an underrated freshman,” said Siena coach Mitch Buonaguro, whose Saints are 4-14, 2-5. “They’re good. They’re 6-1 in the league and a team to be reckoned with.”
Niagara observers were shellshocked by the last two seasons when they were a combined 23-42, including 9-23 in 2010-11 after the end of the Tyrone Lewis era. Trouble was lurking at the beginning of this season as the Purple Eagles stood at 3-6 after a loss Dec. 8 at the University at Buffalo. That’s when Mihalich increased the intensity in practice and the Purple Eagles have won seven of nine.
“I think in practice we compete more and we help each other a lot,” Green said. “Our chemistry has been way better. Everyone is starting to come together and we’re playing more team oriented.”
Niagara led 40-34 at the half, when Green jump started the 24-7 run with a three-pointer to give the Purple Eagles a nine-point advantage. After Mason hit a free throw, Cline hit another three, then Tanksley drilled another off a Siena turnover. Soon Niagara’s lead swelled to 20, then 29 with 6:01 left after a Tanksley layup.
The Purple Eagles shot the ball well as the Saints sat in a zone, where 5-foot-8 Evan Hymes and 5-10 Rakeem Brookins play on the top of the scheme. Green and Mason, both 6-3, were able to shoot over the top.
“We didn’t match up at all,” Buonaguro said.
Niagara connected on 8 of 13 shots from three-point range to build the six-point halftime lead. The Purple Eagles led 30-27 when Tahjere McCall followed up a Marvin Jordan miss. Mason slithered through the lane and hit a runner, then hit a trey from the top of the key to complete a 7-0 run.
On Saturday the Purple Eagles will host Manhattan, which lost, 64-60, to Canisius on Thursday.
The Purple Eagles were without junior Malcolm Lemmons, who suffered a head injury in practice Wednesday.