Niagara University answered a few questions about its team in its home opener.
Yes, it will run long and hard under Chris Casey just as it did for so many seasons under Joe Mihalich. And, no, the Purple Eagles aren’t a one-man show with Antoine Mason, although he’s certainly capable of carrying them.
Niagara raced to the basket early and often while outrebounding the University at Buffalo to tuck away a 92-81, victory in front of 1,937 at the Gallahger Center. It was the first win for Chris Casey as coach at Niagara, who ended a four-game losing streak against the Bulls and dropped UB to 0-2 under first-year coach Bobby Hurley. It was the first victory over UB at home for Niagara (1-1) since 2007.
“We were fortunate we made one or two more plays and one or two more free throws and came out on the positive end of a very hard fought game,” Casey said.
As former New York Knicks forward Anthony Mason sat across from the UB bench, he encouraged his son on numerous occasions to take over the game. Mason, who scored 34 points in a season-opening loss at Seton Hall, put up 25 points while taking the Bulls inside and out. That was enough to offset the game-high 31 points by UB’s Javon McCrea.
“We see the result of Antoine’s work on the court but we’re not all fortunate enough to see him work every day in practice,” Casey said. “What he did tonight and what we did against Seton Hall is because of his work. He scores the ball different ways, he leads by example every day with his work ethic on the court.”
Said UB’s Joshua Freelove, who scored a career-best 15 points: “Man, I didn’t know he had that many points.”
A total Mason scoring rampage, however, was not required. Mason, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s leading scorer last season as a sophomore, received plenty of assistance from Ramone Snowden (15 points, eight rebounds), Tahere McCall off the bench (15 points, eight rebounds) and Marcus Ware (11 points, four rebounds.)
“My teammates are amazing and I trust them,” Mason said. “When they’re missing shots I know they’re going to make the next one so I keep passing to them and they have to keep making shots. I trust my teammates and I know what they can do.”
Meanwhile, UB has a few issues to address. They include frigid three-point shooting (5 of 24), which carried over from the opener against Texas A&M, and a defense that sleepwalked in the first as Niagara ran a glorified layup line.
“We have to toughen up,” McCrea said. “We work a lot on defense in practice so we have to toughen up.”
The Purple Eagles (1-1) also had their way with UB in the first 20 minutes on the boards, holding a 28-17 edge, including an 11-7 edge on the offensive glass. UB trailed after the first 20 minutes, 47-33. The Bulls finished with 17 turnovers, including eight from senior point guard Jarod Oldham.
Each time UB made a run, Niagara answered. Six times the Bulls trimmed their deficit to as little as five points and once to four only to see Niagara wiggle away.
“We didn’t get off to a great start and I think in the first half we came out of the gate losing the effort game,” Hurley said. “We gave up a lot of offensive rebound putbacks in the first half and dug a hole for ourselves. We have to get back to the drawing board defensively and figure out a way to not let our opponent shoot such a high percentage from the field.”
The Purple Eagles shot 56 percent in the second half and 48.4 for the game.
Freelove, the Alabama State transfer, shot 5 of 7 from the field while Xavier Ford came off the bench for 10 points. McCrea also had a game-high 14 rebounds, including nine offensive boards, and was 13 of 16 from the line.
UB trailed by 83-79 with 3:14 left in before McCall connected on two free throws and, after a turnover by Ford, Marvin Jordan converted a layup. Two McCrea free throws cut the lead to 87-81 with 1:45 left but UB couldn’t get any closer.