LEWISTON – The first indication something special was brewing at the Gallagher Center Saturday came early in the second half, when Devon White made like LeBron James, spun in the lane and hit a silky smooth 5-footer. The concoction reached a simmer a little later with Antoine Mason’s jam off a crossover dribble-drive. And the kettle hissed and boiled over as Marvin Jordan dove out of bounds to save possession off a rare Niagara miss, rotated to the far corner and hit yet another Purple Eagle three.
For 20 minutes Saturday afternoon the BracketBuster between Niagara and Northwestern State was proof that statistics sometimes lie through their teeth. The Demons lead the nation in scoring. The Purple Eagles are equally fond of the frenetic. Yet at halftime the two were locked in a defensive struggle that failed to distinguish this game from the masses.
That all changed after intermission. Niagara made 13 of its first 15 field-goal attempts, set the gym ablaze with 61 second-half points and sent the Demons back to Louisiana pondering a 92-76 defeat that met the hype and the approval of the 1,704 in attendance.
Niagara’s outburst came out of nowhere. The Purple Eagles (17-11) missed 10 of their final 14 shots in the first half and clung to a precarious 31-30 lead. Both teams were conceding the glass and bolting back on defense out of mutual respect for their transition attacks. But offensive rebounding becomes needless anyway when there are no misses to chase down. Niagara went 20 for 30 in the second half, including 8 of 10 from three.
“You go 60 percent from the three-point line, 20 of 25 before the last four-minute mark of the half, what more can you say?” said Demons coach Mike McConathy. “We had a game like that this year and I can tell you it’s a pleasure to coach that kind of game.”
The Demons (19-6) hit town riding a nine-game winning streak, their in-season longest in 53 years. They had won six straight on the road in gaining a share of the Southland Conference lead. And they’ve tormented opponents with fresh legs provided by a 10-player rotation that fuels a turnover-producing press and a 78.2 point scoring average.
“I just told the guys that you couldn’t write a better script for what we wanted to happen today,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. “It wasn’t just a win, it was a convincing win against a team that could win their league. That team’s RPI was 88. They’ve beaten Louisiana Tech, who has three losses on the year.”
Niagara has won three straight on the heels of a three-game losing streak. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title is there for the taking when the Eagles close out the regular season beginning Thursday with home games against Rider and Saint Peter’s. Yet something’s been missing of late and that something finally returned to the lineup. Sidelined four games by an ankle sprain, Mason and his team-high 18.9 scoring average returned to the lineup and shared team scoring honors with backcourt mate Juan’ya Green. Both had 20 points.
The toll of three weeks away from game action was evident as Mason pressed in the first half, managed just five points and turned it over thrice. He went 5 of 6 from the field in the second half, and that dunk with 12:40 remaining that made it 53-45 seemed to state his comeback was complete.
“I guess you could say that, I don’t know,” Mason said. “I got frustrated a little bit. I just let off all the stress I guess that I felt.”
Niagara’s second half was about as stress-free as it gets for Mihalich, who has fretted his way through a litany of close finishes this season. Ameen Tanksley (12), T.J. Cline (12) and Jordan (11) also reached double figures.
“They overplay a lot so when we can get them backdoor or drive and kick, I think that helped out a lot,” Green said.
“Niagara did the best job of handling our pressure of anybody all year,” McConathy said. “And I think a lot of it had to do with bigger, stronger guards that we don’t see there. I think that that really made a big difference.”