SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — As midnight approached and a million-dollar lead dwindled to loose change, Niagara’s season reached a climax befitting the horror show it had become.
Throughout the stretch run of February and very early March the Purple Eagles might have been the most-feared six-win team in America. They should have beaten MAAC champion Iona but lost at the buzzer. They could have toppled another elite unit in Manhattan but that win also slipped out the back door. And then, in a supremely diabolical twist that seemed to confirm Niagara as a team governed by Murphy’s Law, a certain win over another MAAC title contender disintegrated when Quinnipiac threw in a half-court shot at the buzzer.
Basketball’s Grim Reaper came to finish the job Thursday night in the pre-quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. Niagara’s 24-point lead over Marist shrunk to two. The RedFoxes took possession with 12 seconds left and got their star freshman an open look from the corner. Only this time what would have been a decisive trey glanced off the rim. And a hurried put-back to force overtime missed the mark.
After a month of torment, 11th-seeded Niagara finally ducked the swinging scythe and unloaded its 10-game losing streak with a 78-76 victory that set up tonight’s quarterfinal date with Quinnipiac. Tipoff should be in the 9:00 hour.
The challenges heightens. Quinnipiac, the No. 3 seed, leads the nation in the three major rebounding categories and has a first-team All-MAAC forward in 6-foot-7 Ike Azotam. The Bobcats (19-10) destroyed Niagara on the boards by 107-56 over their two in-season meetings. Some think The Q has the goods to steal away with the title in its first trip through the MAAC.
“We have to rebound the basketball,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “That’s something we work on every day, and at this point in our development, we’re not a good rebounding team. That’s something we’re going to have to get good at. It affects our defense. Even yesterday, there were a number of possessions where we played some pretty good defense, but we’ve got to come up with the defensive rebound. We have to be better against them on the glass.”
Not all the trends favor the Bobcats. Quinnipiac enters on a two-game losing skid and off a resounding 103-72 loss to the Marist team ousted by the Purple Eagles. And no team in the MAAC had a more difficult time containing Niagara guard Antoine Mason, who averaged 29.5 against the Bobcats and made 27 trips to the foul line.
Mason entered the tourney fueled by indignity after being dropped from first-team to second-team All-MAAC despite sitting No. 2 in the national scoring race at 25.2 points per game. Against Marist he erupted for 38, one shy of his career high, but sweated the ending after missing two free throws with 12.7 seconds left and Niagara up two.
Yet fate did an about-face and the Purple Eagles survived the final minutes.