LEWISTON – Here’s a brief casual spectator’s guide to Niagara basketball: Get your tickets and then go out and do some shopping. Maybe grab a bite to eat. Run back home and let the dog out. Then start heading over to the Gallagher Center, planning to get there with about two minutes to go. You won’t miss a thing.
The Purple Eagles did it again Thursday night, only more dramatically so. Down 14 points midway through the second half, down seven with 45 seconds left in regulation, Niagara launched a frenzied rally to force overtime on a Juan’ya Green three and then beat Iona on Green’s straightaway three with one-half second remaining. Ho-hum.
The 93-90 final score indicates the game’s sizzling nature. Iona, one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, looked like it had a win midway through the second half but wilted as Niagara produced five second-half steals, pounded the offensive boards in relentless fashion and yet again found a way to persevere when all seemed lost. It was the Purple Eagles’ fifth Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference victory by four points or fewer and extended their MAAC winning streak to a school-record 10 games.
Visions of Sunday’s 66-65 comeback victory over Canisius came to the fore as Niagara (14-8, 10-1) denied Iona (14-8, 8-3) a share of the conference lead and a sweep of the season series. Four missed Iona free throws opened the door and Green stepped through. He brought Niagara within 81-78 on two free throws with 23.3 seconds left in regulation, stole the ball and made the last of four threes Niagara launched on a single possession as the Purple Eagles continually beat the Gaels to long rebounds. The tying basket came with 4.5 seconds left and a final Iona shot was well off the mark.
Niagara had to come from behind again in overtime. Trailing 86-85 with just over two minutes remaining, the Purple Eagles took the lead on an Antoine Mason jumper, setting the stage for the wild stretch run. Iona drew even at 90-90 on a pair of David Laury free throws with 21 seconds left, and Niagara put the outcome in Green’s hands. He dribbled the clock down off the top of the key, then stepped into a 22-footer, swishing the shot and sending 1,856 at the Gallagher Center into crazy celebrations. Iona couldn’t get off a final shot.
“Early in the season I had the ball in my hands and I passed it up and everybody got mad at me,” Green said. “I just stayed focused.”
“We know he dribbles into the shot and our players know it and when you ask them after the game they know it, but our guard thought he played him well,” Iona coach Tim Cluess said. “He held on to the ball really forever so it’s going to be a quick contested shot.”
Iona was left to lament some crucial and careless turnovers, Niagara’s 20 offensive rebounds and the unstoppable forces that were Green and Mason. Mason struck for 17 of his career-high 30 points after intermission with Green scoring 21 of his 26 in that same span.
“They’re so dangerous because of their athleticism and size,” said Cluess. “I don’t know how many teams in the league have an answer for those two players in all fairness.”
“There wasn’t any fancy X’s and O’s,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. “This is a players’ game. And my job is to put some stuff together out there to give the players a chance to play and make plays. And in the end that’s what it did. We ran the same play for the whole whatever. Go make a play.”
One of the key junctures for Niagara came at the end of regulation, following Green’s steal with Niagara down three and 22 seconds left. Green missed a three, Mason rebounded. Mason missed a three, Jordan rebounded. Mason missed another three, Green rebounded. And then Green finally found the target.
“They went after the ball like it was the last rebound that was ever going to happen,” Mihalich said.
“Just the will to win,” Mason said.
The outcome left Iona stunned. Sophomore forward David Laury had a huge game with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Momo Jones, the MAAC’s leading scorer, had 23.
For more on this game, go to the Campus Watch blog at buffalonews.com.