LEWISTON — Somehow, Saint Peter’s lost track of the national scoring leader, and Antoine Mason stood all alone on the left wing behind the three-point arc. Mason started waving for the ball like someone trying to flag down a cab and he finally received a pass from Marvin Jordan.
For Mason, Niagara University’s junior guard, an open look is like a Ryan Moore 10-foot putt — easy money — and Mason’s shot didn’t even draw iron as the Purple Eagles, who trailed by 12 just five minutes earlier, took the lead for good.
Mason scored 25 of his game-high 35 points in the second half to lead a furious Niagara comeback that resulted in a 61-56 triumph on Sunday in front of 1,257 at the Gallagher Center, where there was little to cheer about for the game’s first 35 minutes.
Shots clanged hard off the rim, steals that might lead to dunks were instead missed layups. Once, Mason saw his shot go through the rim, only to have the basket nullified because one of his teammates reached into the net and pushed it right back out for basket interference.
But Niagara turned a potential ugly loss into something that could energize its season.
“I thought we made plays when we needed to and I’m really proud of our guys because they kept fighting,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “When you keep fighting good things can happen for you.”
Mason, who entered the game averaging 28.8 points a game, struck the biggest blows not only with his offense but his play defensively. He had three of his five steals in the last 5:14. He brought the Purple Eagles within a point at 54-53, with 2:06 remaining, with a steal and two-handed backward dunk.
Eventually Mason gave the Purple Eagles, who had lost seven straight since beating the University at Buffalo on Nov. 13, their first lead of the game. There wasn’t a defender within 10 feet of him.
“When I got the ball I saw nothing but the rim,” said Mason, who was 13 of 24 from the field and 3 of 8 from long distance. “It was surprising.”
Jordan told Mason after the game: “I don’t know what they were thinking by leaving you open.”
Jordan also played a role in the theatrics. After Saint Peter’s hit two free throws, Jordan tied the game at 56 on a trey with 1:50 remaining for his lone field goal of the game.
“That’s just the type of person he is,” Mason said. “He just keeps grinding it out. That’s what our team is. We got frustrated losing but we just keep going at it.”
It was redemption for Jordan, who couldn’t throw a shot into the Niagara River from the Peace Bridge for the majority of the game.
“It was just being confident and trusting my teammates to keep passing me the ball,” said Jordan, who was 1 for 9 in the game. “I knew I was due for one so I’d rather have a big shot than the ones earlier.”
Trailing by 52-40 with 5:14 left, the Purple Eagles (2-8, 1-1 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) turned up their defense and recorded five of their 16 steals, which aided the rally. Niagara leads the MAAC in scoring but the team is adjusting to Casey’s man-to-man defense.
After the Purple Eagles lost, 84-71, Friday night to Siena, Casey devoted Saturday’s practice to learning defensive concepts. Although Saint Peter’s (2-6, 0-2) shot 52.6 percent in the second half, the Peacocks were only 36 percent for the game and committed 21 turnovers.
“We’re a prideful group and people were scoring 100 points on us and we took that to heart and we had to make stops,” Mason said.
The Purple Eagles play Davidson at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at First Niagara Center as part of a doubleheader that also features Canisius against UB.