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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Niagara’s rise to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title with one of the nation’s younger teams earned Joe Mihalich the league’s coach of the year award Thursday night at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Picked fifth in the conference preseason poll, Niagara blew away expectations by going 13-5 and emerging atop the conference’s best-balanced finish in at least a decade. This was the first time this millennium the MAAC had, in the same season, seven teams finish .500 or better in league play and six go .500 or better overall.

Iona’s Lamont “Momo” Jones, the conference’s leading scorer, received the player of the year honor, denying the bid of Niagara point guard Juan’ya Green to become the award’s first sophomore winner since La Salle’s Lionel Simmons in 1987-88.

Mihalich probably wrapped up the award when Niagara won two late-season road games with leading scorer Antoine Mason sidelined by an ankle injury. Niagara’s the 40th youngest team among the nation’s 325-plus Division I teams, according to statistics often cited by Mihalich.

“When I say this it’s going to sound self-serving and I don’t want it to sound that way, but when you get honored in a game like this it does mean something,” said Mihalich, a three-time winner. “This is a league of good coaches. I mean, every team, every coach, I have an enormous amount of respect for. There’s not an easy game. One win’s a lot so to get 13, we’re really proud of that.”

Mihalich thanked and named all three of his assistants — Kyle Neptune, Mike Farrelly and Shane Nichols. “I’m not trying to get corny here, but my staff’s phenomenal,” Mihalich said. “They’re awesome. When I hire an assistant, I don’t hire a guy who’s not eventually going to be a head coach, who doesn’t want to be a head coach. And I’m hard on them. I’m no day at the beach. So you feel like a hypocrite because you’re up there and you get recognized and they don’t get as much as they should.”

Other award winners

Men: Defense Player of the Year – Rhamel Brown, Manhattan; Newcomer of the Year – Shane Reynolds, Manhattan, and Amadou Sidibe, Fairfield.

Women: Coach of the Year – Brian Giorgis, Marist; Player of the Year – Damika Martinez, Iona (a sophomore); Defensive Player of the Year – Leanne Ockenden, Marist; Newcomer of the Year – Joy Adams, Iona.

Tournament action

The men’s action gets under way with tonight’s pre-quarterfinals. The winner of the 8-9 game between Marist and Siena moves on to face Niagara at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. No. 5 Canisius plays No. 4 Iona at 4:30 Saturday.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com