If there’s one redeeming aspect to the ESPN BracketBuster this season it’s that it enables tired teams to rest up heading into the home stretch of their conference seasons. At least those with the good fortune of playing at home.
Niagara arrived back in Western New York Sunday night following a gargantuan sweep of its two-game downstate road trip and is off until Northwestern (La.) State visits the Gallagher Center for a BracketBuster game on Saturday. Then the Purple Eagles have another four days off before trying to lock up the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title (and at least an NIT bid) by closing out the regular season against Rider and Saint Peter’s.
Niagara (16-11, 12-4) hit the road last week to face two of the hotter teams in the MAAC. Marist was coming off wins over the conference’s two NCAA tournament teams of a year ago and the preseason favorites, Loyola (Md.) and Iona. Manhattan had won four straight, including victories over Canisius and Loyola. A Purple Eagles sweep seemed unlikely, especially with injured scoring leader Antoine Mason remaining on the sidelines.
But Niagara got its sweep, winning by three at Marist and four at Manhattan, and has full control of the MAAC race with two games to play. Loyola is a game back at 11-5 and still has a March 1 road date at Iona.
“We’re not one to pat ourselves on the back but I’ll tell you what, I’m really proud of this team,” coach Joe Mihalich said Monday. “We get down there and we’re playing two of the hottest teams in the league on their home court without Mason, and we got them both.
“This team really just had an incredible will to win. We’re not great shooters, we’re not a great defensive team, we’re not a great rebounding team. But I’ll tell you what we’re really good at. We’re really good at competing and being tough and having a will to win.”
Niagara persevered without Mason and with guards Tahjere McCall and Marvin Jordan both hobbled by bad ankles. McCall, a freshman, played 69 of 80 minutes, nevertheless, and came up with 12 points, 12 rebounds and six steals. (The eight turnovers were less flattering).
As for Mason (ankle), Mihalich said the hope is he’ll be back on the court soon, possibly Saturday and no later than the closing MAAC stretch. He’s missed the last four games.
“He’s getting better every day,” Mihalich said.
In the zone
BN Big 4 Player of the Week: UB guard Tony Watson’s play has been reminiscent of the way his teammate of a year ago, Mitchell Watt, surged down the stretch of his senior season. A senior from West Palm Beach, Fla., Watson averaged 27.5 points in wins over Toledo and Miami, scoring a career-high 24 against the Rockets and then obliterating that with a 31-point rampage at Miami. For the week he was 17 of 25 from the field, 12 of 18 from three and 9 of 9 from the foul line. He also had eight assists against one turnover while playing 77 of a possible 80 minutes.
“Again he played 40 minutes, and in the last four games he’s played all but three minutes,” coach Reggie Witherspoon said after Miami. “He’s in a groove now, when we played him the first time he was in a bit of a funk but he’s playing well now.”
Three straight wins has UB fourth in the overall MAC standing, excluding Toledo, which is ineligible for postseason play. UB’s final four conference games are against East teams, including road tilts at its two closest pursuers — Kent State and Bowling Green.
“We all knew the situation we were in, knowing that with a win we could make some moves in the standings, and I wanted to set the tone offensively right away,” Watson said. “We did a great job of moving the ball and finding the open guys.”
UB is home to Manhattan Saturday afternoon in the BracketBuster. It’s a game that has no bearing on anything but will be intriguing nonetheless with UB freshman point guard Jarryn Skeete facing the confusing array of defenses the Jaspers put forth.
Never say never
Manhattan’s double-overtime victory over Iona last week came when coach Steve Masiello allowed Rhamel Brown, a 6-foot-7 junior, to talk his way onto the foul lane with teammate Michael Alvarado attempting two free throws in the final seconds. Alvarado missed the second shot for the tie and Brown tipped the ball to teammate Emmy Andujar for the winning layup.
“I don’t believe in doing this, I don’t believe in having bigs on the foul line because they foul and get over the backs,” Masiello said. “He said, ‘Put me in coach, if he misses I’ll get the rebound.’ I say, ‘Rhamel, no.’ He says, ‘Coach, I got it.’ … The kid is going to be one of the greatest players to ever put on a Manhattan uniform.”
“I think we’re running out of new ways to lose late in games,” said Iona coach Tim Cluess, whose team has dropped four of five — two in double OT, one in OT and one by three points in regulation. “That all has to fall on me. I’m not doing a good enough job getting these guys ready to finish games off. We’re right there. ... We’re just making really bad mistakes that costs us games.”
The Canisius Ski Club doubtless would welcome a February visit to Vermont. Instead, it’ll be the basketball Griffs hitting the road for a Saturday BracketBuster against the Catamounts. Like Niagara, the Griffs will have another four days off after this one before completing the MAAC schedule against Saint Peter’s and Rider.
The Griffs are tied for third with Rider, a game behind Loyola and a game ahead of Iona. Canisius received some good-sized help on Monday night when Fairfield edged Iona, 66-64.
Bona had three players foul out in Saturday’s OT Loss at Richmond to none for the Spiders. Center Youssou Ndoye played just 15 minutes before he was disqualified. Marquise Simmons lasted just 21 minutes and Demitrius Conger fouled out in the final minute.
The Bonnies shot 78 percent from the foul line but were outscored by seven at the stripe in a game they lost by three. Senior guard Eric Mosley had a career-high 30 and is averaging 22 over the last three games.
The game could prove pivotal in the final analysis. Bona’s tied with Dayton for the 12th and final A-10 berth, a game behind Richmond among others. Bona has three home games remaining (Massachusetts, Charlotte and Fordham) and two on the road (Dayton and Duquesne). Dayton has two home games (Bona and Richmond) and road tilts at UMass, Charlotte and George Washington.
Any case UMass had for an NCAA at-large bid took a hit with Saturday’s 83-82 loss to Temple. The Minutemen are 16-8 overall, 6-5 in the A-10 and 58th in the RPIs.
There’s opportunity at hand with the remaining schedule including games at home against Butler and on the road against Xavier, but first … Bona.
The UMass game was Temple’s fifth straight decided by a single point. The Owls are 3-2 in that stretch.
Ohio remained in the MAC title hunt with its 78-75 overtime victory over Kent State. The winning basket came on a three from backup Stevie Taylor after star point guard D.J. Cooper fouled out with 31.7 seconds left in the OT.
Akron coach Keith Dambrot is expert at designing defenses that disrupt the opposition’s top players.
The Zips ran their winning streak to 17 with Saturday’s conquest of Bowling Green. Falcons guard Jordan Crawford, who averages 15 points, totaled 11 in the two-game season series, going 4 of 28 from the field.