LEWISTON — Marist coach Jeff Bower knew that the success his Red Foxes were having defending Antoine Mason was almost too good to be true.
You might hold a premier scorer at bay for a half. Maybe even for three quarters of a game. But eventually the great ones step to the fore and find a way to get the ball in the basket, as Mason did down the stretch Friday night in sealing Niagara’s 80-74 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference victory at the Gallagher Center.
Mason, the nation’s leading scorer, finished with 22 points, 5.7 under his average, and didn’t draw a foul inside the arc until the game was 32 minutes old. But once he got going there was no stopping him.
Thwarted in his trademark dribble-drive game, Mason set up residence outside the arc late and buried a trio of vital threes as Niagara ended a two-game skid and won for just the third time in 10 MAAC starts.
There was plenty of positive news for the Purple Eagles (6-15 overall) on this night. Marvin Jordan picked up where he left off at Canisius on Wednesday night and scored 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the floor. Senior forward Marcus Ware added 12 points, reaching double figures for the first time in six games and only the second time in the last 14.
And Niagara defied its standing as one of the nation’s poorer rebounding teams by scoring an 18-10 second-half advantage on the boards after being smacked 21-9 on the glass before intermission.
All that set the stage for Mason to strike at the game’s critical junctures. His first three provided a 60-56 lead with 6:37 remaining. His second made it 67-61 and his third put Niagara on top 70-61 with three minutes left as Marist (6-13, 3-6) struggled mightily from the foul line, going 11 of 20 in the second half.
“Mason hit some big shots, timely shots, when they were crucial,” Bower said. “When somebody scores at that pace it’s hard to stop them. So we just kind of hoped to make it difficult, make him take a lot of shots to get his point totals.
“I think he had to work hard for every point he had. Chavaughn Lewis did a terrific job on him for the majority of the game. But when you get used to scoring at that rate eventually you’re going to hit a couple, and they came at a time when it was really important.”
Mason said it was a matter of adjusting his game to what the Red Foxes were conceding.
“I just read the defense,” Mason said. “They backed off and I trust myself to shoot it. I’ve been working on it in practice. So when the first one went in I got more confidence, and then the second one and the third one.”
What Mason was to the end of the game Jordan was to the beginning. The senior shooting guard snapped out of a slump with a 19-point effort at Canisius and dumped three threes on the Red Foxes in a span of 2 minutes, 10 seconds early in the first half.
Niagara has been needful of a consistent No. 2 scorer and Jordan, second in Niagara history in three-pointers made, shapes up as the ideal guy. His average had dropped to 9 a game before Wednesday.
“That just means I need to get in the gym and work, as I’ve done,” Jordan said. “And it shows.”
“I know at times he’d like to make more shots and we tell him, ‘Keep shooting,’ ” Niagara coach Chris Casey said of Jordan. “Shooters shoot and they make shots and we have complete confidence in him.”
Niagara played its second straight game without point guard Tahjere McCall, who suffered a severe tongue laceration in practice on Tuesday. Casey said McCall’s availability remains day to day.
Marist’s Lewis led all scorers with 25 points.