SPRINGFIELD — The fouls were piling up. An injury to a starter complicated a dicey situation. But Niagara advanced to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference semifinals by tapping into an under-appreciated strength – its bench.
The top-seeded Purple Eagles received 27 points from reserves, the usual contributions from mainstays Antoine Mason and Juan’ya Green and pulled away down the stretch to beat No. 9 seed Siena, 74-62, and move into this afternoon’s semifinals at the MassMutual Center. They’ll face No. 4 seed Iona, which prevented an all-WNY match-up by ousting Canisius, 89-85.
Although they finished 8-24, the Saints were hardly easy pickings. Surely they threw the Purple Eagles a surprise by breaking a seven-game conference losing streak in knocking off Marist in the pre-quarters Friday night. And they carried that momentum back to the court about 17 hours later, closing within two points with 12 minutes remaining before Niagara (19-12) re-established its command.
“It’s that time of the year as John Chaney always said, ‘If you win one you buy one,’ ” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. “The experts said ‘Well, it’s a 1-8 game. But in this league the difference between 1 and 8, as you just saw, is so marginal.”
It’s unclear whether the Purple Eagles will have the services of freshman point guard Tahjere McCall the remainder of the tournament. He suffered an apparent left knee injury early in the game, went to the locker room and was on crutches afterward.
“We don’t know exactly what it is,” Mihalich said. “I’ll tell you what, if anyone can do it he will but it don’t look good.”
The injury forced Green to play all 40 minutes and reprise his freshman season by spending most of that time at the point instead of the 2-guard. His shooting might have suffered (4 of 14), but he finished with 15 points, six assists and five rebounds. Mason led all scorers with 21, going a perfect 10 at the foul line.
“I did it last year, I played a lot of it last year, so I’m pretty much used to it,” Green said.
Contributions from the bench were both numerous and timely. Remember earlier in the season when freshman forward T.J. Cline couldn’t buy a three? It seems like years ago now. His baseline jumper from behind the arc ended an 8-0 Siena surge that had drawn the Saints within two with about 12 minutes left. When Siena was within two again, backup guard Malcolm Lemmons scored on a baseline drive. And then there were the six points and three boards contributed by Joe Thomas, who played 19 minutes as starting center Devon White ran into immediate foul trouble and played just four minutes.
“If we had an unsung hero today it might have been Joe Thomas,” Mihalich said. “He came in, had a couple buckets and banged it around a little bit.”
The first half was a nightmare for Niagara yet the Purple Eagles emerged with a 32-31 lead. White picked up two fouls nine seconds apart inside the first three minutes and spent the rest of the half on the bench. McCall went down with that apparent left knee injury while driving the basket just 4:47 into the game and was in tears as he was helped to the locker room. Thomas was hit with his second foul with 7:57 left. Mason, Ameen Tanksley and Marvin Jordan also had their time limited by two fouls. Siena benefitted from Niagara’s lack of continuity and its diminished interior defense and positioned itself for an upset attempt.
Niagara could have eased the pressure but the shots it typically makes weren’t falling. They were 10 of 30 in the half and just 2 of 13 from behind the arc. Thomas and Mason were the only Purple Eagles with more than one field goal (each had two).
Thomas gave Niagara a lift when he came on for White. He scored one basket off a rebound and another off a sweet pass from Green and at that point the Purple Eagles led, 23-15, with a little over eight minutes left.
Putting the Saints away remained a challenge.
“We got to be sharper tomorrow,” Mason said.
“The charm of our team,” Mihalich said, “is we know we can lose.”