SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Anyone think that maybe they should vote again?
Niagara guard Antoine Mason, the nation’s second-leading scorer, responded to his all-conference snubbing in exhilarating fashion Thursday night. In what might have been the most complete performance of his Niagara career, Mason struck for 38 points and filled up the stat sheet across the board as the 11th-seeded Purple Eagles escaped No. 6 Marist, 78-76, in the last of six women’s and men’s prequarterfinals at the MassMutual Center.
Niagara saw a lead as big as 24 points dwindle down to two before scoring the upset when Marist missed two shots in the final six seconds. The Red Foxes had the opportunity to tie or win after Mason, in a rare down moment, rimmed out two free throws with 12.7 seconds to go.
For 20 minutes Niagara (7-25) looked the complete opposite of a team that hit the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament on a 10-game losing streak. The Purple Eagles controlled play right from the opening tip, built a 21-point halftime lead and eventually, after much angst, moved into a quarterfinal meeting with No. 3 Quinnipiac here Saturday night. The Bobcats swept the season series but needed a buzzer-beating half-court shot to escape with a Feb. 22 win on Monteagle Ridge.
Mason was sensational in what had every appearance of being a statement game. A first-team all-MAAC pick last season when six players made the squad, Mason was left off the five-man unit this year despite leading the nation in scoring for three months and still holding down second at 25.2 a game. The 38-point effort was one under his career high. He also had six rebounds and matched his season high with four assists while making 13 of 19 from the field.
“I’m just playing to win,” Mason said with a wry smile. “I don’t care about what’s said and done. I’m just ready to continue playing.”
Niagara senior guard Marvin Jordan saw it differently when asked about Mason making a statement.
“I think he did that,” Jordan said.
Marcus Ware added 14 points and Jordan 11 for Niagara. Jordan’s two free throws with 33 seconds to go put Niagara ahead 78-74 and stood up as the winning points.
Marist began carving into Niagara’s lead with about 15 minutes remaining and got the deficit down to two three times. Chavaughn Lewis, like Mason a second-team all-MAAC pick, was a catalyst behind the surge that commenced when the Red Foxes (12-19) unleashed a trapping full-court press. Lewis scored 26 points and Khallid Hart, an all-rookie pick, added 20.
Hart missed a three-point attempt with three seconds remaining and center Adam Kemp couldn’t connect on a short shot off a rebound at the buzzer.
Marist contained Mason as well as anyone in the MAAC during the regular season. He had 22 points in Niagara’s victory over the Red Foxes and 19 in its loss. He shot a combined 14 for 41 from the field, sub-par numbers for sure. But Marist had no answers – none, zilch – during a first half in which Mason went off for 20 by going 7 of 11 from the field and 6 of 6 from the foul line. He also produced five rebounds as Niagara won the boards, 19-11. And get this: His three assists led the team and moved him within one of his season high.
Niagara took control right from the outset in maybe its most dominant half of the season. Mason had six points and Ware four in a 14-2 blitz that opened a 16-3 lead with 11:34 remaining. Marist, intent on using its size advantage, worked the inside but still couldn’t but a field goal. The Red Foxes went two seconds shy of nine minutes with nothing but two free throws before Pieter Prinsloo hit a trey with 10:03 to go.
For Niagara, the surge resumed. Mason struck for six points in 30 seconds as he was fouled shooting a three and then hit again on a drive to the basket. Teammates fed off his relentless example. Cameron Fowler jammed after a steal. Ramone Snowden got a dump in from Mason and went for a three-point play of his own. The advantage went as high as 21 points before the final 19-point halftime margin.
Niagara sizzled, shooting a resounding 65.4 percent (17 of 26) during the opening 20 minutes. Marist fizzled, making good on just 7 of 26 (26.9 percent).