LEWISTON – Until this point of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season, Niagara held its fate in its hands. But now the Purple Eagles can go ahead and hang a sign in the window of the Gallagher Center: Help wanted.
A two-game season-ending homestand that had the makings of a coronation took a sudden turn Thursday night when surging Rider came into the Taps with attitude and completed a season sweep of the Purple Eagles, 68-59, before a crowd of 1,948.
A win over the Broncs would have given Niagara (17-12, 12-5 MAAC) multiple ways of wrapping up its first regular-season crown since 2005 and no less than its 14th NIT bid. The Purple Eagles might even have had the championship in hand before they stepped back on the court Saturday afternoon against Saint Peter’s.
Instead, on Saturday they’ll need to beat the last-place Peacocks (who lost in overtime at Canisius Thursday) and hope that Loyola loses one of its two remaining games: at Iona tonight and home to Manhattan on Sunday. Although multiple scenarios could complicate the picture, Loyola appears to hold all the tiebreaker advantages with the Purple Eagles.
“You get what you deserve,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “If it happens it happens. If it doesn’t we’ll take care of business on Saturday and whenever we’ve got to play, we play. That’s the way it goes. We had control of our own destiny and now we don’t.”
This is the time of year when upperclassmen tend to shine. There’s a feeling of desperation in the air. The seniors especially sense time is running out on their careers. Rider’s Jonathon Thompson, a 6-foot-4 senior guard, certainly played with a focus and purpose befitting his status. Thompson riddled Niagara’s match-up zone for a team-high 25 points – 15 of them in the decisive second half.
“Being my last two games I’m going out and giving it all,” Thompson said. “Tonight really was about trying to give Niagara a loss so we can have a chance of getting the regular-season title.”
Rider (17-13, 11-6) will need a lot of help for that to happen but it’s clear the Broncs, who have won four straight and six of seven, are poised to be major players when the MAAC Tournament unfolds next week in Springfield, Mass.
Niagara makes its living with an aggressive, guard-oriented brand of basketball that caters to its star guards, Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason. Green added another solid performance to his Player of the Year resume, scoring a game-high 27 points to go with six rebounds. But Mason had one of his tougher days in a Niagara uniform. He made just 1 of 12 shots from the field and almost finished with more turnovers (six) than points (seven).
“We matched their physicality,” said Rider coach Kevin Baggett. “This group defends and we compete. If you’re going to win – and this is something we talk about from Day One – you got to defend and you got to be tough and you got to be physical and you got to be physical-minded as well.”
Rider’s tenacity sealed the outcome. The Broncs were clinging to a five-point lead just inside of 2 minutes when Niagara forced two missed shots. Rider snared both rebounds, the first by Thompson, and ended up making a pair of free throws.
The paint belonged to the Broncos throughout the night. They outscored Niagara 34-22 underneath. They won the boards, 44-39, with 6-7 junior Daniel Stewart pulling down 14 en route to his sixth double-double of the season (he also had 14 points).
“The goal for me for the rest of the season is to get double-digit rebounds,” Stewart said. “I’m just going to the glass and trying to clean it up best I can.”
Niagara looked like a frustrated lot, and it boiled over when senior center Devon White was ejected with 8:50 remaining and Rider in the midst of a 13-0 run. Thompson made the two free throws and the Broncs had control at 55-44.
“They have good man-to-man defense and good help defense so once you drive you can’t really do too much,” Green said.
Tonight’s Iona-Loyola results will determine whether Niagara is playing on Saturday for a title or a chance to remain in contention.
“We’ll just see if we can’t play the right way on Saturday,” Mihalich said. “Simple as that.”