LEWISTON — There was nothing unlucky about (win) No. 13 for the Niagara Purple Eagles on Saturday.
With a second chance to seize the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season championship – and the bid to the National Invitation Tournament that comes with it – coach Joe Mihalich’s squad turned in a virtuoso performance in a convincing 78-61 win over Saint Peter’s before 1,665 inside the Gallagher Center.
“I thought we played like champions,” Mihalich said. “We didn’t back into anything.”
The Purple Eagles’ 13th MAAC win gave them their first regular-season championship since 2005, and ensured they’ll be playing a postseason tournament game for the first time since 2009.
While the reward of an NIT berth is nice, Niagara has its sights set higher. Saturday’s win also gives them the No. 1 seed for the MAAC Tournament, which starts Thursday in Springfield, Mass., and rewards its winner with a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s just a reflection of all the work we put in,” said NU junior Marvin Jordan, who had 12 points Saturday. “We still know there’s a bigger goal ahead of us.”
By the time Mihalich had sat down for his postgame interview, he’d already hit his team with the usual spiel about how every team is 0-0 come conference tournament time.
“These poor kids had to listen to me say it already,” he said. “That’s what it is, but we’re just going to enjoy this for a couple days. Monday morning we’ll start talking about it again. To win the conference regular-season championship, it’s special.”
It’s also somewhat unexpected for a young Niagara team that was projected to finish fifth in the conference before the season in a vote of coaches.
“At the beginning of the year, I said that 13 wins would win the league,” Mihalich said. “I figured somebody would do it, but I didn’t think it would be us.”
The Purple Eagles squandered their first opportunity to prove their coach wrong Thursday night when they dropped a 68-59 decision to Rider. They came out Saturday determined to right that wrong.
Niagara started at a blistering pace, hitting seven of its first eight shots, with the only miss coming when Juan’ya Green had his shot blocked. NU had an early 15-9 lead but cooled considerably from that point, going just 5 for 17 the rest of the half.
With the Niagara offense stagnant, Saint Peter’s (9-20, 3-15) went on an 11-2 run to close the Purple Eagles’ lead to 21-20. A smooth reverse layup by Peacocks freshman guard Chazz Patterson tied the game, 26-26, with 3:28 left in the first half, but Niagara responded with a 6-2 spurt. NU freshman T.J. Cline beat the first-half buzzer with a contested three from the right wing for a 32-28 halftime lead.
“It was a little bit of a mojo-type shot,” Mihalich said. “He’s got that confidence. He doesn’t play like a freshman, that guy.”
Saint Peter’s cut the Niagara lead to 35-32 with 15:39 left on Darius Conley’s layup. Niagara then caught fire.
First it was a three-pointer by Jordan. Then it was Green’s turn. Then Jordan, again. Finally, Antoine Mason hit the Purple Eagles’ fourth straight three-pointer, and was fouled. He completed the four-point play and the 13-2 blitz gave Niagara a 48-34 lead.
The Purple Eagles’ run was aided by six straight missed free throws by Saint Peter’s, the last four of which came from Conley – including one airball.
With Green running the show, Niagara (18-12, 13-5) outscored Saint Peter’s, 36-12, over a stretch of 9:09 in the second half. The Eagles had 21 assists on 27 field goals and just eight turnovers, with Green scoring 12 points and dishing out nine assists.
“If we share the ball – or like coach says, share the game – and we’re all making shots, we’ll be a great team,” Green said.
Or maybe like Saturday, a championship team.