LEWISTON — Niagara’s 85-74 loss Friday night against Monmouth constitutes as one of those games where you burn the video and erase it quickly from your memory.
The Purple Eagles offered little that was pleasing to the 1,053 at the Gallagher Center – other than a late rally that erased a 22-point deficit – and perhaps the only saving grace is that they have to play again Sunday against Rider so there’s no time to lament. But, my, was it ugly.
Niagara’s prospects didn’t appear as gloomy after the first 20 minutes when they trailed 35-32 but it went bad in a hurry in the second half. They shot just 29.6 percent overall and 3 of 13 from long distance.
“I thought we continued to compete hard and put ourselves in position toward the end to maybe make a run,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “But we needed to be better in the second half with scoring against the zone.”
There were plenty of turnovers (20), but not many assists (eight) or rebounds (25) as the taller Hawks had their way with the Purple Eagles in the paint (34 points). Niagara didn’t solve the riddle of Monmouth’s 2-3 zone until late in the game and that was exactly what Hawks coach King Rice wanted.
Monmouth played man-to-man the entire season and Rice started practicing the scheme this week. Rice told his wife just before the game and she couldn’t believe it.
“We might have tricked them a little bit and I don’t think you should trick guys,” said Rice, the former North Carolina point guard under Dean Smith. “When crunch time came I was waffling back-and-forth in the locker room.”
When Monmouth (8-8, 2-3 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) sprinted to a 45-32 lead to start the second half, Casey replaced four of his starters – Antoine Mason, Tahjere McCall, Ramone Snowden and Joe Thomas – and inserted Cameron Fowler, Wesley Myers, Rayvon Harris and Marcus Ware to play with Marvin Jordan with the hope of finding holes in the zone.
It didn’t help as Monmouth, playing its first season in the MAAC, increased its lead to 22 points with 7:39 left.
“We just weren’t in a good rhythm to start off with,” said Mason, the nation’s leading scorer who finished with 24 points on 4 of 12 shooting and 14 of 15 from the free-throw line. “As you can see at the end we started learning their zone but it was a little too late.”
The calendar year has gotten off to a miserable start for Niagara with road losses at Rider (85-83) and Iona (118-92).
There was a stretch that was worth salvaging when Niagara’s fullcourt pressure bothered Monmouth and created turnovers to cut the Hawks lead to 72-63 with 3:21 left. But after two free throws by Andrew Nicholas, Niagara couldn’t get the lead under double digits the rest of the way.
Jordan finished with 12 points, Tahjere McCall has 11 and Rayvon Harris added 10 for Niagara (4-12, 1-4). Nicholas and Deon Jones led Monmouth with 14 points each.