LEWISTON – Teams run into barriers each year and Niagara’s men’s basketball team finds itself facing a huge one as the season winds down.
Sunday’s 77-70 loss to Canisius was the third straight in conference play for the Purple Eagles (14-11, 10-4 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference). The three losses coincide with Antoine Mason’s sore ankle that has kept him on the sidelines.
But Niagara remains in first place thanks to a 10-1 conference start that cushioned the blow of losing to Loyola (Md.), Rider and now Canisius. Then there’s the fact that the MAAC is as topsy-turvy as any league in the country, which helps explain how bottom-feeding Marist can knock off MAAC contenders Iona and Loyola in the span of three days.
Niagara coach Joe Mihalich acknowledged the losing streak, but said every other team in the MAAC would be glad to trade places with the Purple Eagles.
“Name one team in this league that wouldn’t like to be where we are right now?,” he said. “Even with the three losses in a row, we’re in first place.”
Indeed, there’s a collective sigh of relief at Niagara. A Loyola win Sunday would have put the Greyhounds into a tie with Niagara for first place. Instead, they stand with Canisius and Iona in a three-way tie for second with four league games remaining. That’s something the Purple Eagles can live with.
“We’re still confident,” said sophomore guard Juan’ya Green, who finished with a team-high 21 points and five assists in 38 minutes. “We’re going to go into our next game being confident but we have to bring our swagger up and have that attitude about ourselves.”
It would help to have a healthy Mason and his 18.9 points a game. The sophomore swingman was injured during the Purple Eagles’ 89-87 overtime loss to Loyola and didn’t play in the loss to Rider last Thursday. Mason’s ankle is so sore that he winced as he tried to jog back to the locker room at halftime Sunday when his team trailed, 35-24.
“He’s physical and he’s tough and when you need a basket he finds a way to put it in the hole,” Mihalich said. “You might even be thinking, ‘Doggone he’s in trouble, he’s in trouble,’ and somehow, someway he makes that shot in the paint with people on him.”
Canisius’ Billy Baron, who scored a game-high 33 points, said there’s a key element missing from Niagara minus Mason.
“They’re pretty different, they don’t have his slashing ability, which is big,” Baron said. “They obviously lean a lot on him with his point production and when they don’t have that they look for other guys to step up. They do have other guys who can step up but thankfully we hit some shots and came out on top. I think people might look at that and say, ‘Oh, Mason wasn’t playing.’ But I think we did a better job hitting shots.”
Mason’s replacement, junior guard Marvin Jordan, had a rough afternoon, going scoreless and finishing 0 for 7 from the floor. Jordan was the hero in the first matchup, coming off the bench to score 23 points, including the game-winner.
“Poor Marvin, the guy who took his place, didn’t make a shot,” Mihalich said. “We still had our chances to win but doggone it, he’s our leading scorer and he’s a guy who can get a bucket when your team needs one. In the first half we needed one and that tough sucker finds a way to throw it in the hole.”
The Purple Eagles didn’t help themselves by shooting just 12 of 23 from the free-throw line and 9 of 17 in the second half against the backdrop of “C-Block North,” otherwise known as the Golden Griffins’ student section seated in the end zone.
“That shouldn’t be why you lose but for a second I didn’t know if we were at the Koessler Center or the Gallagher Center,” Mihalich said. “That shouldn’t matter, but 9 for 17 in the second half …”
More barriers lay ahead. Their next game Friday is at Marist, which can no longer be considered a pushover, and then Sunday at Manhattan, which blew out Canisius by 23 last Thursday. The BracketBuster game against Northwestern State on Feb. 23 is a tuneup for the final regular home games against Rider (Feb. 28) and Saint Peter’s (March 2).
But is Mason’s sore ankle something that will heal soon or is it similar to the injury that sidelined him for the majority of his freshman season?
Three games ago, a Niagara regular season championship seemed like a foregone conclusion. Now it’s almost as if the first-place team is in pursuit of its competitors.
“We can’t change what happened,” Mihalich said. “We have to focus on the future.”