LEWISTON — For the last week Niagara’s conference winning streak has been as precarious as the perch in a dunk tank. Someone was bound to find the target. Someone was bound to nail the bull’s-eye. And Saturday afternoon at the Gallagher Center, Loyola (Md.) finally produced the big splash.
The conclusion to Loyola’s 89-87 double-overtime victory will satisfy those who believe what goes around, comes around. Given the ball under their own basket with 2.6 seconds left, the Greyhounds completed a three-quarter court inbounds pass that led to Julius Brooks’s winning layup as time expired. Six days earlier, Niagara beat Canisius when the Griffs’ Billy Baron dribbled the length of the court in 2.9 seconds but failed by milliseconds to get off what would have been the winning shot before the final buzzer.
Loyola (16-8, 8-4) had no doubt what play was on the agenda after Niagara guard Malcolm Lemmons made two tying two free throws with 2.6 left. The Greyhounds called time and flashed back to their Nov. 18 game against Albany, when an inbounds pass of the same distance resulted in the winning three-point play.
Once again, Anthony Winbush took the ball out of bounds. His long throw found Erik Etherly near the top of the key. Etherly spun, dribbled once and fed Brooks (career-high 14 points) for the gimme that ended Niagara’s 10-game Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference winning streak and stopped Loyola’s two-game skid.
“That’s the play we always run: ‘Valpo’ ” Winbush said. “I get it, throw it down to Erik, he always catches it, makes a play and we always win at the end.”
“We’ve done it twice this year,” Loyola assistant coach G.G. Smith said. “We did it against Albany. ... It worked. So we’re 2 for 2 with the ‘Valpo’ play this year.”
“That’s my fault at the end. That’s my fault,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. “We need to practice it more. We need to practice it. The fact they scored at the end, that’s a coaching mistake, because we didn’t do it enough, we didn’t practice it enough. It wasn’t their fault, none of the players. I don’t know who missed him. It doesn’t matter. We got what we deserved today.”
If Niagara (14-9, 10-2) got what it had coming it’s because the law of averages kicked in. It didn’t play well in the first half of the Canisius game but rallied to win. It was down 15 in second half against Iona on Thursday (and seven back with 45 seconds remaining) and triumphed in overtime. So while Mihalich claimed his team courted defeat from the outset Saturday — “I think we lost this game in the first half,” he said — truth is it was a near-duplicate of the previous two.
“I never think you should lose but we can’t have games too close every single time,” Niagara guard Antoine Mason said. “So this was a wake-up call.”
The Purple Eagles were sitting pretty when a 16-2 run vaulted them into a five-point lead with seven minutes left in regulation. And they knew they’d have the final shot even after Winbush (13 points) canned the tying free throws with 34.5 seconds left. But, unlike Thursday night against Iona, Juan’ya Green didn’t get a free look at the end.
“I thought they were in man at first but it was like they zoned up and I didn’t notice it until after the end when I just could have drove,” Green said.
“They did a great job with that,” Mihalich said. “They disguised their defense a little bit. They had the advantage of seeing what we did the other night in the same situation so they thought about it, adjusted it. They didn’t let Juan’ya do what he did the other night.”
Not that time, anyway. Two Dylon Cormier free throws put Loyola ahead three with 18 seconds left in overtime but Green (23 points), situated along the left wing, delivered the tying three with nine seconds remaining. That set up a second OT during which the lead changed hands five times before Loyola reached deep into its November bag of tricks.
“In that situation we talked about not letting them advance their dribble, catch the ball on the run or be going north to south,” Mihalich said. “We wanted them to go east to west on the catch. And then you want to try to switch on everything so they can’t complete that long pass.”
But complete it they did.
For more on this game, go to the Campus Watch blog at buffalonews.com.