SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Niagara’s season is over. Is Antoine Mason’s time with the Purple Eagles over as well?
Mason, the nation’s second-leading scorer, went for 28 points in Saturday night’s 89-80 MAAC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Quinnipiac and, as a fourth-year player with eligibility remaining, can under NCAA rules transfer without sitting out the year.
It could be an attractive option after Niagara suffered through one of its longest seasons, finishing 7-26. At the same time Mason is up to third on the school’s career scoring list with 1,934 points and with one more season would have a solid shot at Calvin Murphy’s storied mark of 2,548. Mason scored 846 points on the season.
“I got to sit down with my parents and talk it over,” Mason said early this morning. “I’m not sure.”
What he’ll have to ponder in part is whether he’ll have comparable freedom as a scorer at another program as he’s had at Niagara.
The wear and tear of the season and constant attention from Zaid Hearst, one of the league’s top defensive guards, seemed to take its toll on Mason in the second half. A strong, penetrating guard who looks to draw fouls, Mason took 12 second-half foul shots but made just six. He missed a pair that could have cut Niagara’s deficit to three points with 2:10 remaining. For the game he was 9 of 22 from the floor.
“Mason’s very tough to guard,” said Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore. “You really got to scheme and plan and take him into account every trip.” Hearst “as a primary defender, he’s terrific on Antoine. He’s tough, though. He gets his 28. I thought we really did a good job on him, which sounds crazy, him getting 28.”
Quinnipiac (20-10) picked apart Niagara’s defense with cool efficiency. The Bobcats struck from the outside on the shooting of Shaq Shannon (20 points) and Hearst (15). They took it to the Purple Eagles inside on the wide shoulders of all-MAAC forward Ike Azotam (18 points) and front-court mate Ousmane Drame (15). They shot 59 percent and change in the first half, 57 percent and change in the second and 58.2 percent for the game against a team that ranks near the bottom of Division I in field goal percentage defense.
“They’ve got two important ingredients,” said Niagara first-year coach Chris Casey “They’re very good around the basket, and when you take that away, they can make perimeter shots.
So that’s a pretty good recipe on offense.”
Niagara just couldn’t keep pace despite doing a reasonable job on the boards against the nation’s No. 1 rebounding team. The difference in this one was 42-29, a far cry from the resounding 107-58 advantage compiled in their two regular-season meetings. Drame, a 6-foot-9 junior, had 16 boards but just one of those came at the offensive end. In fact, Niagara matched the Bobcats in offensive boards at eight apiece.
“It’s tough, those guys they work hard,” said Niagara’s Marcus Ware, a 6-8 senior who faced Quinnipiac while playing at Monmouth before transferring to Niagara. “Every time I’ve played them in my career they’ve worked hard. I just try to match their intensity level.”
“Our guys really, really competed hard and did some good things and executed what we were trying to do,” Casey said. “So I’m proud of the way we fought against a very good team.”
Quinnipiac broke fast to start the second half, scoring 11 of the first 13 points to lead 47-38 on the inside work of Azotam and Drame. Niagara countered in its own fashion. Threes by Ramone Snowden, Mason and Marvin Jordan (15 points) sparked an 11-3 surge that brought the Purple Eagles within 50-49.
The Bobcats unleashed a long-range arsenal of their own. Evan Conti hit a three and Shannon followed suit and soon Quinnipiac’s lead was 61-55 with 11:50 remaining. And it continued to grow. Two missed free throws by Mason were the prelude to a 9-0 run that forced Niagara to call time trailing 70-57 with 7:57 on the clock. The lead grew to 15 before Niagara’s late run that came up short.
The Purple Eagles graduate seniors Jordan and Ware and may have another transfer candidate in sophomore guard Tahjere McCall, whose playing time dropped late in the season to where he didn’t appear at all in the season finale, the prequarterfinal win over Marist or against the Bobcats.