LEWISTON – After the game, Joe Mihalich laid it out for this team.
“I told them if we’re going to have a great year, a special year, these are the kind of games you need to win,” he said.
Nothing came easy for the Niagara men’s basketball team Saturday afternoon, but a late surge, playing aggressive around the rim and hitting free throws added up to a 64-60 win over Manhattan in front of 1,557 at the Gallagher Center.
The win keeps Niagara on its best start in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since Mihalich’s first season on Monteagle Ridge in 1998-99. The Purple Eagles improved to 7-1 in the MAAC and 11-8 overall.
But to get to that point, the Purple Eagles had to fight through a feisty defense from Manhattan (5-13, 3-5 MAAC).
“Much of the second half was very frustrating,” Mihalich said. “We were all frustrated and we took a big step because we worked through our frustration and found a way to win the last four minutes. ... To have a great year, these are the kinds of games you need. We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. This had loss written all over it, but the guys wouldn’t let that happen.”
In a game of spurts Niagara had a nine-point lead, 41-32, early in the second half only to see the offense dwindle against Manhattan’s pressure. The Jaspers made their shots and took a six-point lead, 53-47, with 8:43 left to play.
The Purple Eagles inched back by driving to the basket and picking up fouls. Antoine Mason hit four straight free throws to bring Niagara within one, 57-56, with 4:02 left.
Then came a momentum changer. Mason was called for a foul after he ran into a screen set by Roberto Colonette. Officials originally put Shane Richards on the line and he hit the first shot of a one-and-one. But Niagara protested and the officials went to the replay. The point was taken off the board and Colonette was placed at the line. He missed the front end.
With the Jaspers up 58-56, the teams traded scoreless possessions until Juan’ya Green hit a jumper to tie the game with 2:26 to go.
Green hit three free throws, T.J. Cline sank two and Tahjere McCall hit one to close out the win.
“Down the stretch, that was an interesting game,” Manhattan coach Steve Masiello said. “I never saw them change a free throw shooter in the middle of a play. ... They made their free throws down the stretch and we had two huge turnovers down the stretch.
“To hold Niagara to 64 points, I’m proud of the way our defense played. ... I thought we did a great job defending, but we fouled a lot and that hurt us. Our pressure was key in taking them out of their rhythm. I never thought they got into a comfortable rhythm like I’ve seen them do against other teams.”
Niagara would agree. There was little offensive flow. The Purple Eagles had only two three-pointers, both from Cline, when it had been averaging 7.4 a game.
The difference came at the free-throw line. Driving and creating in the low post, the Purple Eagles were able to get Manhattan defenders in bad positions, then take advantage of it.
Big advantage of it. To the tune of 38 points from the free-throw line. In all, Niagara went 38 of 49 from the line as Manhattan was whistled for 28 fouls.
On the flip side, Niagara was called for 18 fouls as the Jaspers went 13 of 20 from the stripe.
“We had to fight,” said Mason, who went 13 of 16 from the line on a night he went just 1 of 5 from the floor. “We weren’t making shots so we had to find a way to score. We were staying aggressive.
“We needed this type of game,” Mason added. “We’ve won games by 20 points and we needed a close game to get that experience. The freshmen needed that experience.”
And the freshmen didn’t just gain the experience, they performed pretty well. McCall had 12 points and three steals while Cline had 11 points and five rebounds.
“[McCall] is such a good defensive player,” Mihalich said. “He makes plays. He still makes freshman mistakes but he’s fearless and tough as can be. ... And T.J. I thought had a good game. It’s pretty good when you get 23 points from your freshmen.”
Niagara plays at Siena on Friday and then travels to rival Canisius on Sunday.