LEWISTON — It was hard discerning what to make of Niagara leading into this season. The Purple Eagles totaled just 23 wins the last two campaigns. There are only two seniors on the roster, one a fifth-year transfer who would miss a month because of injury. Would this be another building block year, or had the time come for the young but talented Purple Eagles to come to the fore and make some noise in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference?
Niagara issued an emphatic response Saturday night to what had been a lingering question. Facing a surging Fairfield team renown for its oppressive defense, the Purple Eagles carved out a 71-67 victory before 1,445 at the Gallagher Center that safeguarded their share of first place four games into the conference schedule.
This qualified as a statement victory for Joe Mihalich’s troops. The Stags (10-6, 2-2) had won six straight, five in a row on the road and hadn’t allowed an opponent more than 60 points in almost a month. Yet they had no answer for sophomore guard Juan’ya Green, last year’s MAAC Freshman of the Year. Green became one with the basketball down the decisive stretch run, scoring 15 of Niagara’s final 20 points and finishing with 31. He had 35 against the Stags in last season’s four-point loss at the Gallagher Center.
“I think he got hot today,” said Fairfield’s star guard, Derek Needham. “It was very hard stopping him.”
“They play good defense so I got to adjust to what they do,” Green said.
Green’s analysis was drenched in diplomacy. Backdoor plays had little to do with it. More accurately, he flourished in straight-up, one-on-one basketball, using his size and strength to penetrate the lane off the dribble, which suddenly has become a recurring theme. Green went 9 for 14 from the field against the Stags, 10 of 15 in Thursday night’s romp over Marist, a 19-for-29 explosion following a three-game block during which a less aggressive approach resulted in tepid 10-of-36 shooting.
Early in the second half, with Fairfield having inched ahead, Mihalich put the ball in Green’s trusty hands for good. Green moved full-time to the point and freshman Tahjere McCall went to the bench.
“Things were kind of rolling,” Mihalich said. “I kept saying to the staff with each time out, ‘We got the right guys in there. We’re riding the right guys.’ And they were playing well.”
Fairfield throttled Canisius with its defense Thursday night but couldn’t combat Green off the dribble. He penetrated the interior time and again and either scored or drew fouls with seemingly every drive. He went 12 of 13 from the foul line and put the Purple Eagles ahead to stay on two free throws with 7:54 remaining, good for a 55-53 advantage. His play of the game came with 5:03 left. Confronted as he neared the basket, Green sank a floating fallaway 5-footer that made it 62-58.
“Big-time shots,” said Niagara center Devon White. “Big-time free throws. He always comes through, even in practice he comes through. … That’s just him.”
Green’s season-best scoring effort came with Antoine Mason, Niagara’s scoring leader at 18.8, held to just 11. No other Purple Eagle made it into double figures although White, the injury question coming into the season, loomed large with eight points, eight rebounds and three steals.
Fairfield turned it over 21 times, which accounted for some of the large free-throw disparity. Niagara (7-7, 3-1) went 27 of 37, Fairfield 6 of 15.
“We played a hot team,” Mihalich said. “We beat not just a good team but a hot team, (They) beat St. Joe’s at St. Joe’s and Old Dominion at Old Dominion. Not too many people are doing that. And they beat Canisius, who was playing well.”
And one that shed a little more light on Niagara’s capabilities.
For more on this game, go to the Campus Watch blog at buffalonews.com.