COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Niagara coach Joe Mihalich prefaced Niagara’s NIT appearance by saying his young Purple Eagles could hasten their development playing with a team like Maryland. And play with the Terps they did. For a half.
The Terrapins put a jarring halt to Niagara’s upset hopes right after halftime, broke up a tie game and sauntered to a 86-72 victory in the opening round of the NIT. Niagara finished 19-14 while the Terps advance to the second round at 23-12.
Niagara, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season champion, entertained big thoughts upon leaving the court at the half tied at 35. The Purple Eagles had persevered through some difficult stretches. Their outside shooting was negating Maryland’s monstrous size advantage.
The opening minutes of the second half set the record straight. Niagara missed its first nine field goal attempts, managing only a T.J. Cline free throw. At the same time Maryland exploited its huge inside advantage, turned up the pressure defense and launched a 12-1 burst that opened a 47-36 advantage with 16:27 left. The game was never close again, with Maryland’s lead at or close to 20 most of the way.
“I thought we had these guys back on their heels a little bit. I thought we had a chance in the first half,” Mihalich said. “Then it was dunk, layup, dunk, tie game. And that was just what they needed to remind them how good they are, that they beat Duke twice. They got a little of that mojo going.”
Niagara sophomore guard Antoine Mason led all scorers with 24 points and had good success drawing fouls off dribble-drive penetration. He went 12 of 13 from the line. Fellow sophomore Ameen Tanksley added 18 points and a team-high seven boards for Niagara,
Nick Faust, Logan Aronhalt and Seth Allen all had 15 points for Maryland, which made 17 of 29 second-half field goal attempts to Niagara’s 11 of 35.
“Our approach has been great. If we didn’t show up tonight we would have lost,” coach Mark Turgeon said. “Our play in the second half shows you that we’re pretty determined to get better and move on.”
Niagara took an early punch, threw a few flurries of its own and came out of the first half with its upset hopes fueled and the score tied at 35.
Maryland looked every bit the part of an ACC team in the first three minutes, shooting out to a 9-2 advantage. Making matters worse for Niagara, center Devon White picked up two quick fouls and went to the bench for the remainder of the half.
White’s absence had ominous implications given Maryland’s huge height advantage under the best of circumstances. But in going smaller and inserting another three-point threat in Cline the Purple Eagles were able to create matchup difficulties for the Terps.
A 9-0 run capped by a Cline free throw pushed Niagara ahead, 11-10, with 13:55 to play. Cline’s rebound basket had the lead at four, 22-18, before the Terps answered with a 5-0 run.
The teams continued to exchange scoring punches throughout the half. When Tanksley nailed his third bomb of the half with 35 seconds remaining, the Purple Eagles left the floor with an expanded sense of belief, one that Maryland would soon squash.