LEWISTON — How opponents choose to defend Niagara comes down to preference. Do they let Antoine Mason get his points, play close attention to his teammates and risk Mason infusing the young Purple Eagles with momentum? Or do they concentrate on minimizing Mason’s impact, thereby forcing Niagara’s less sophisticated offensive talents to overcome the diminished production of the nation’s leading scorer?
Siena took the road less traveled on Friday night in the Gallagher Center. The Saints defended Mason with relentless resolve, limited his trademark dribble-penetration and pulverized Niagara on the interior early en route to an 84-71 victory in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
Mason scored 30 points or more in six of Niagara’s first eight games but never got a whiff of the plateau against the Saints, a tall, physical team in its first year under former Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos. Siena shut down his driving lanes in holding Mason to 18 points on 5 of 10 from the floor (8 of 10 from the line). He came in averaging 30.2 points but also looking to become a more selective shooter after some struggles over the last three games. He also sat out the final seven minutes, a rare respite for a player ranked third nationally in minutes per game.
“You can’t let him get going,” Patsos said. “That guy’s going to have 40 this year. I know he’s had 35 twice. But we kind of got into him a little and I think he got a little off his rhythm. You got to look down and say there’s the best player in the country having 18. I mean, 18. I woke up this morning and thought he was going to have 40 on us.”
“At some point they just tried to X me out but I just got to rely on my teammates,” Mason said. “They got to do what they got to do. We got to get it together.”
Conversely, Siena got above-standard production out of leading scorer Rob Poole, a 6-5 junior guard. The Saints penetrated the paint with impunity in the early going, and that opened up the perimeter for Poole in a big way. He erupted for 16 first-half points, 12 of them on shots from behind the three-point arc, and it was never much of a game after intermission. He finished with 21.
“I have a great point guard in Marquis Wright, who looks for me coming off the screens and if I didn’t have my two guys setting screens for me I wouldn’t get open because there’s no way I can take these guys off the dribble,” Poole said.
Six straight points put Siena in command, up 16 with 13 minutes remaining, and Niagara couldn’t make a serious run thereafter. Sophomore Rayvon Harris, a transfer from George Mason, contributed a career-high 15 points for Niagara but picked up his fourth foul on a technical with 13:33 remaining. He was whistled after continuing to jaw at the Saints following a mild skirmish.
The loss was the seventh straight for Niagara (1-8) under first-year coach Chris Casey. Siena (3-7) snapped a four-game losing streak that included two tournament losses to Purdue.
Siena built a seven-point lead over the opening eight minutes, squandered it, and then reasserted its inside dominance in opening a 47-35 halftime advantage.
Niagara was overmatched by Siena’s size on the interior. And when the Purple Eagles packed their defense, Poole made them pay by nailing four threes during a 16-point half that exceeded his per-game average of 14.2.