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Of all the crushing defeats suffered by Niagara University this season – and the count has now reached 18 – this one is the most excruciating.

Up by 12 points with just over four minutes left in the contest, the Purple Eagles appeared on the verge of a statement win over Iona before missed free throws and the hot-shooting Gaels foiled Niagara’s upset bid, 90-89, Friday night at the Gallagher Center.

Iona (14-8, 11-2 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) won the game when A.J. English scooped up a loose ball and drained a three-pointer from the corner with 7.9 seconds left. After a timeout, Niagara (6-18, 3-10) got a clean look from long distance by Tahjere McCall but his shot was off. Rayvon Harris grabbed the rebound but his shot at the buzzer misfired as well.

It was a devastating loss for a team that played without second-leading scorer Marvin Jordan, who was home in Peoria, Ill., with his ailing grandmother. It was not known if Jordan will return for Sunday’s game against Manhattan.

After the game, first-year coach Chris Casey told his players they win and lose as a team and he didn’t know why these painful losses keep happening.

“There’s a reason,” he told his players. “At some point we’ll find out the reason but we have to worry about what we control, which is coming and having a good practice and showing up Sunday and competing extremely hard again.”

But the losses keep piling up and for Antoine Mason, the nation’s scoring leader, this one was especially devastating.

“Every loss is tough but this one hurts a lot,” said Mason, who scored 13 points on 6-of-18 shooting. “We had the lead, we had the win but we just came up short.”

Everything seemed to favor the Purple Eagles, especially in the second half. Ramone Snowden scored 18 points and inhaled 10 rebounds while Wesley Myers, who started in place of Jordan, had 16 points. When you’re trying to score an upset, unsung players have to step up and Snowden and Myers did their jobs. So did Harris, who scored 14 points off the bench.

Joe Thomas’ layup gave the Purple Eagles a 12-point advantage with 4:09 left and the 1,259 in attendance roared in approval.

“Honestly, in my opinion, I did feel like it was getting away,” said Iona’s David Laury, who scored a game-high 28 points off the bench. “But I didn’t think we would lose.”

The Gaels are a big-spurt team, especially from the perimeter, and soon Niagara’s lead was down to two with 59 seconds left. But it came down to missed free throws. Mason, who suffered cramps in his calf and had to leave the game briefly, had a chance to seal the game with 20.8 seconds left.

Mason missed the first of two free throws and then Iona called timeout to ice him some more and it worked because he missed the second.

On the ensuing possession, Iona was looking for Sean Armand (22 points) on a flare or Laury on a slip screen. Laury got the ball near the top of the key, but slipped and he tossed it to Tavon Sledge, who found English in the corner.

“I just let it go,” English said. “Niagara played really good and outplayed us but we won the game so it was great.”

Said Snowden: “I was hoping he didn’t make it. It was a loose ball and we could have come up with it but we didn’t. Like coach said, we’re being tested right now and this one just stings a lot.”

In the final seconds, Niagara wanted to get someone loose on a long screen off the full-court press. Myers found a wide open McCall but the shot was off and so was Harris’ follow at the horn.

“We definitely let this one slip,” Harris said. “We outplayed them in the second half and we just have to make free throws and be stronger with the ball, value each possession more.”

email: rmckissic@buffnews.com