SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The crossroads of Niagara’s basketball season can be traced to Jan. 11 and a road game against Saint Peter’s. The Purple Eagles were coming off a humbling overtime loss at Brown that had dropped their overall record to 7-8. The conference grind was about to begin in earnest.
“They had beaten Iona and Rutgers early,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich recalled of the Peacocks. “It was a road game and we had just lost to Brown. … It was a physical game. It was a junkyard brawl. And our guys were just so tough and just started to get that will to win that night.”
That resounding 77-58 victory over the Peacocks launched a seven-game winning streak that re-calibrated expectations. Picked for finish fifth in the MAAC preseason poll, the Purple Eagles began entertaining thoughts of a championship. And it all came full circle on the final day of the regular season, when Niagara beat Saint Peter’s for a second time to lock up its first regular-season title since 2005.
“I figured we do this next year,” Mihalich said. “Another year of getting better and getting bigger and getting stronger and getting older, all that stuff. But these guys don’t realize they’re young. They don’t realize they’re not supposed to win this year. They don’t realize it’s supposed to be next year.
“What’s that line from Seabiscuit? Maybe the little horse doesn’t realize he’s the little horse. And that’s the way these guys are. They don’t realize they’re young.”
The Purple Eagles (18-12, 13-5) wear the target of the No. 1 seed as they open tournament play at 2:30 this afternoon with a quarterfinal against Siena, the winner of Friday night’s game with Marist. Thirty minutes after the conclusion, No. 5 Canisius (18-12, 11-7) takes on No. 4 Iona (17-13, 11-7). Wins would pit the Purple Eagles and the Griffs in the semifinals for the third time overall and the first since 2002.
Niagara sophomore guard Antoine Mason, a first-team all-conference performer, said lingering high school memories will serve to help him focus on the tournament mission. He was on a New Rochelle team knocked out in the sectionals.
“We came in first and we lost in the playoffs so I know how that feels, coming in first and just losing in the playoffs, and it [stinks],” Mason said. “I’m ready for it. We came in first. Now it’s time to win the playoff.”
Canisius has had almost a week to prepare for its quarterfinal with Iona. The teams split the season series with each winning at home. They both have all-conference guards – Player of the Year Lamont “Momo” Jones for Iona and Billy Baron for the Griffs. They both prefer an uptempo, transition-fueled attack. And they enter in somewhat fragile states of mind. The Griffs lost their season finale at home to Rider and haven’t won consecutive games in more than a month. Iona won its last two but not before enduring an excruciating stretch in which the Gaels lost six of seven by a combined margin of 11 points.
“This is like the final exam of school,” Billy Baron said. “Everything comes down to this weekend. We can’t look back and say we should have got back on defense, we should have been on help-side defense, we should have rebounded. If it comes down where you don’t hit shots or something like that, we’ll take it. But we can’t lose over things we can control.”
Rebounding could prove the game’s decisive facet. Canisius knows it was fortunate to win the last meeting despite a minus-15 margin on the boards.
“That’s one thing we’re definitely going to focus on is rebound the ball,” forward Jordan Heath said. “We feel that if we beat them on the glass we should be able to beat them in the game.”
“I’ve been talking about it all year,” Griffs coach Jim Baron said. “That’s a concern that I do have. “
The Griffs, picked ninth in the preseason poll, haven’t made the MAAC semifinals since that 2002 meeting with Niagara. Iona, an at-large NCAA team last season, is looking to make its third straight semifinal appearance.