Lauren Gatto has been finding ways to score for Niagara all season. The redshirt junior forward can score in the post, and her mobility and confidence allows her to get quality mid-range jumpers.
But what begins to set Niagara apart is the ability of the offense to no longer rely solely on Gatto. That offensive chemistry, along with a commitment to basic defensive principals, have the Purple Eagles in good position in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and paced them to a 62-49 win over Canisius in front of 2,196 at the Koessler Athletic Center on Sunday afternoon.
Gatto finished with a game-high 17 points, shooting 50 percent from the field.
Helping her cause in the post were her teammates, as Niagara went 7 of 9 from three-point range to open up their offensive opportunities.
When the guards are hitting outside shots, “it makes it a lot easier,” Gatto said. “It makes the post touches more open.”
The Purple Eagles hit three three-pointers early in the game to build a double-digit lead, 20-10, with 8:09 left in the first half. Getting production from the guards was a point of emphasis for Niagara after the Purple Eagles’ post players combined for 46 points in a 60-58 loss at Iona on Thursday.
“We talked about our guards contributing more offense,” Niagara coach Kendra Faustin said. “Our last conference game, our post players were 80 percent of our scoring. We need to score at the rim and make use of the inside-out to get open looks at three.”
In the second half, Canisius cut the lead to six points, 36-30, on a drive by Ashley Durham. Niagara responded with a three-pointer from Kelly Van Leeuwen which sparked an 11-0 run for the Purple Eagles, who took a 47-30 lead with 10:53 left in the game.
The key thing for Niagara in that run – Gatto didn’t score.
“For us to take that next step it’s ball movement,” Faustin said. “We can see how good we are when we move the ball and we ran some plays where we scored on our second or third options. We got reads on our plays. This is an unbelievable step for us.”
What impressed Faustin the most, perhaps, was the ability of her team to close out the win.
Niagara has struggled at times to finish off games, both earlier this season and in years past. She saw promising signs in this game, especially how her team responded with an 11-0 run when the Golden Griffins had closed the gap in the second half.
“This game solidified our chemistry,” Faustin said. “Our chemistry was great on offense. On the defensive end we pressured the ball, had great rotation, rebounded. We did all the things we’ve been talking about all year and we finished the game.”
“I think we could have won some games earlier in the conference season but we learned a lot from them,” Gatto said. “We’re definitely ready for the second half of MAAC play. We’re not playing to lose. We want to win. We’ve stayed sharp and composed and that’s really helped.”
Meghan McGuinness added 16 points for Niagara (9-10, 4-4 MAAC) while Sylvia Maxwell had eight rebounds and nine points.
For Canisius (8-11, 5-3 MAAC), a flat offensive start to the game hurt on both ends of the floor.
“I thought we let our offense dictate our defense a bit in the first half,” Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. “Lauren was getting shots where she wanted. We weren’t able to stop them.”
The Golden Griffins shot just 23 percent from the field and went just 1 for 20 from the three-point line and were out of rhythm the entire game.
Durham led the Griffs with 14 points. She couldn’t hit from outside (0 for 5 from three-point range) but started creating by driving to the basket and getting to the free-throw line.
“My shot wasn’t falling. None of our shots were falling,” Durham said. “I wanted to get to the hoop and attack more. They were packing it in so much and I thought driving to the paint and dishing to the post might work a little bit better.”
Canisius will travel to league-leading Marist on Friday then play at Manhattan on Sunday.
Next up for Niagara is a game at Loyola on Thursday then at Rider on Saturday.