LEWISTON — The play that encapsules Antoine Mason’s evolution from shooter to scorer occurred with 7:10 remaining in Niagara’s 68-58 victory over Vermont on Sunday afternoon at the Gallagher Center.
T.J. Cline had just snared a rebound and kicked the ball to Mason on the perimeter. He eyed a shot, then thought better of it. Niagara was leading by nine. It was in the Purple Eagles’ best interests to take some time off the clock.
As Niagara (5-6) ran its offense, Mason made his way to the far corner of the court. When the ball again found him he was open. This time he fired, draining a three and drawing a foul from Candon Rusin that resulted in a four-point play.
The chances Mason would have made a comparable decision last year and sacrificed a shot for the betterment of the team based on the game situation? Not very good.
Mason’s across-the-board numbers speak to the maturation process that’s taken place. The son of former NBA forward Anthony Mason is shooting less and scoring more. He’s utilizing his strength to penetrate instead of taking the easy way out from behind the arc. And his free-throw shooting, a detriment during his redshirt freshman season of a year ago, has turned exemplary. He’s over 83 percent and had a string of 22 snapped when he rimmed one out in the final seconds.
Mason went 7 of 12 from the field and 9 of 10 from the line in scoring a game-high 25 points – 19 in the second half – and leading Niagara to its first winning streak of the season. Sophomore point guard Juan’ya Green added 17.
“ ‘Mace’ has been very, very efficient,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “You want your scorers to be aggressive. ... At the same time, you want to make good plays. ‘Mace’ has been incredibly efficient and he’s showing us all, he scores points all kinds of ways. He gets to the foul line for a few, hits a driving layup, knocks a three down here and there, pulls up for jump shots. So there’s a lot of ways to get on the board and he did it today.”
Mason, a 6-foot-3 guard, shot 38 percent from the field last year and 64.8 percent from the line. Sunday marked the sixth time in the last eight games he’s cashed at least 50 percent of his shots from the field. He’s up to 49.2 percent on the season, and only 35 guards in the nation are shooting better than 50 percent.
“In the summer working out with my dad we actually sat down, watched some tape of me from previous years and just looked at what was positive and what was negative,” Mason said. “I’m just working on that.”
Niagara never led by less than eight after Mason’s heady four-point play with 7:10 remaining extended the lead to 50-37.
“I think that speaks to having a good feel for the game, knowing that at that time the clock’s more important than the shot there, we’re going to get that shot down the road,” Mihalich said. “That’s what the good players do. They make good decisions.”
Vermont (6-4), the defending America East champ, looked like it would carve Niagara apart on the inside during the early going. Luke Apfeld (6-7) scored in the paint and Ethan O’Day (6-9) produced a conventional three-point play in the paint and the Catamounts led, 5-2, less than two minutes in. They wouldn’t score again for almost eight minutes and the Purple Eagles, despite shooting a miserable 25 percent from the field, hit the locker room with a 19-18 lead.
While Niagara made good on just 7-of-28 shots, the Catamounts went 7 for 19 and turned it over 11 times. Niagara’s active and extended matchup zone/man-to-man hybrid changed the game’s feel and limited Vermont’s ability to work to its interior size advantage. All told, the Catamounts committed 19 turnovers.
“We’re becoming defensive stalwarts, right? Gee whiz. Man. Golly,” Mihalich said.
“This win right here is one of those wins we won’t get enough credit for. It’s a good, good win against a very solid team. It’s one of those teams, they make you play their way, and it’s not the way we like to play. So we played their way and we beat them playing their way. Our defense was terrific.”