One can view Niagara University’s games against Iona and Manhattan in one of two ways. It was either a weekend of despair, with both contests decided on the final possession, or – in a more optimistic formulation – the Purple Eagles nearly pulled off upsets over the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s top two teams.
Either way, Sunday’s 78-77 loss to Manhattan in the Gallagher Center was just as harrowing as Friday’s 90-89 setback against Iona. On Friday it was a late three-pointer by A.J. English that crumpled Niagara’s hopes, but Sunday’s was a blocked shot by the Jaspers’ Rhamel Brown.
Down by a point, the Purple Eagles (6-19, 3-11) had to run the length of the court in 6.6 seconds to win. Antoine Mason tossed the ball inbounds to Tahjere McCall, who passed to Rayvon Harris near halfcourt. Harris dribbled right then crossed over to his left to try to free himself from Brown but the Manhattan big man rejected the left-handed layup attempt as the buzzer sounded.
Manhattan coach Steve Masiello feared there would be a foul called and in a game with 45 fouls whistled and 67 free throws attempted, that was everyone’s initial reaction. But like the five previous blocks by Brown, who finished with 22 points, it was clean.
During the timeout before the play, Brown told Masiello, “Don’t worry, there’s not going to be a shot getting to the rim. I got it.”
“And he got it,” Masiello said. “He makes me look real good.”
Said Brown: “I’m just glad Coach has that trust in me; after three years of being together we built that kind of trust where if I tell him I got something, I go out there and do it.”
The win placed Manhattan (17-6, 12-2) into a two-way tie with Canisius for second place in the MAAC. Like Niagara, Canisius dropped its games this weekend against the Jaspers and Gaels.
Meanwhile, the Purple Eagles are on the other end of the spectrum. Niagara first-year coach Chris Casey began his postgame news conference with “similar words to what I had on Friday.”
“We have to go through the pains of learning how to play at the end of a game and making good plays on both ends of the floor,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone can question our fight.”
It marked Niagara’s fourth consecutive loss and the Purple Eagles have won just twice in their last 10 games. At this point last year they were on the verge of winning the MAAC regular season title and now they’re trying to remain out of the cellar.
But this is Casey’s 27th year in the business and he knows all about dealing with growing pains.
“The only thing you do, and it’s a life lesson too, is you keep moving ahead,” Casey said. “You can’t change anything that’s happened but under your control is what you want to happen the next time and that’s the way you need to approach practice and that’s the way you need to approach game preparation and our guys approach it that way.”
Mason, the nation’s leading scorer who finished with 33 points, said Niagara is improving.
“I know my teammates and me personally, we’re not scared of anybody,” he said. “We’re getting more confident, we’re playing better as a team. It’s getting close to the end and we have to finish on the right track.”
The first meeting at Iona was a 26-point romp but NU led the Gaels by 12 with four minutes remaining on Friday. Manhattan (17-6, 10-4) came into Sunday’s game with nine road wins, second in the nation, but the Purple Eagles took the senior-laden team to the wire.
Niagara was competitive this weekend without the services of senior guard Marvin Jordan, who is in Peoria, Ill., to be with his ailing grandmother. Sometimes being competitive and losing ring hollow.
“You’re going to go through changes in your life all the time. It’s just how you look at them and how you attack them,” said McCall, who finished with 16 points, seven assists and five steals. “But it hurts to lose.”