LEWISTON — Niagara tried to give its fans something positive to remember in its home finale Saturday afternoon at the Gallagher Center against a Quinnipiac team that on paper had the potential to run them off the court.
Things didn’t quite unfold that way, and just when it seemed the Purple Eagles were going to snap a seven-game losing streak and give the 1,766 in attendance a pleasant basketball memory to hold onto until their next home game in the fall, they found a way to lose, again. Only this time, the Purple Eagles and their faithful would come away feeling like they got hosed.
Umar Shannon’s three-pointer from just over half court found nothing but net, beat the buzzer and added to the mounds of season-long frustration at Monteagle Ridge as Quinnipiac escaped with a 90-88 win in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball.
Just before Shannon broke Niagara’s hearts, Antoine Mason swished two free throws with 1.7 seconds left to give the Purple Eagles an 88-87 lead. Niagara had led by 17 at one point, then had to rally from a five-point deficit. After a Bobcats timeout, they inbounded a long heave that Mason seemed ready to pick off as if he was an All-Pro safety in football.
Instead, Mason ended up being tackled from behind by Zaid Hearst and the ball bounced off Mason to Shannon, who wasn’t the intended receiver but happened to be in the right place at the right time. He capped a horrific 3-for-16 shooting performance with a highlight-shot moment that he likely will never forget.
So, did Hearst get away with one?
“He didn’t get nothing but my jersey and shoulder but the ref didn’t call it, so unfortunately somebody has to lose,” said Mason, who led all scorers with 31 points. “They made a great play at the end.”
“I just wanted to make sure the basket was good,” said a diplomatic Niagara coach Chris Casey, who did say something to the officials after the shot. “I thought Antoine did a good job of trying to come up with the ball. There was some contact. I’m not standing right there but I think the play stands for itself.”
Was there contact, Shannon?
“They let us play tonight,” he said of the officials.
Niagara (6-23, 3-15) gave Quinnipiac (19-8, 14-4) all it could handle and then some, especially during the opening 20 minutes as Mason poured in 16 and junior forward Joe Thomas came off the bench to score 10 of his 12 points. Niagara got stops on defense, forcing Quinnipiac guards into a dreadful 3-of-19 shooting performance.
Thomas, who came into the game averaging 3.0 points, scored eight straight points at one stretch late in the first half, and his last basket - a layup off a fast break - prompted Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore to call timeout and Purple Eagles fans to give their team a standing ovation.
NU led, 46-33, at the break but had no answers inside to stop Ousmane Drame or Ike Azotam then, nor did they in the second half other than trying to out-scrap the nation’s top rebounding team. The Bobcats, who lead the nation in rebounding, won the battle of the boards 51-29, including 27 on the offensive end.
Drame had 26 points and 18 boards, while Azotam had 26 and 13 rebounds for the Bobcats, who have won seven in a row. Evan Conti added 15 for Quinnipiac, including a jumper that made it 77-73 Bobcats with 6:22 left.
But the Purple Eagles, who have now lost six times at home by via single-digits – including four by two or fewer points and twice via buzzer-beaters, had a rally left in them. After a free throw by Wesley Myers, Mason stole the inbounds pass and tied the game at 77-77 with a layup with 5:26 left. Ramone Snowden’s trey gave NU an 80-79 lead 34 seconds later.
After the teams traded baskets and the lead, Drame – who scored 14 in the second half – made a 12-footer to give the Bobcats an 85-82 lead with 91 seconds left. Marcus Ware’s putback jam gave Niagara an 86-85 lead with 41 seconds left. Azotam’s running layup gave Quinnipiac another one-point lead with 28 seconds left, setting up the finish.
Ware finished with 15 points, while fellow senior Marvin Jordan had 14 in their final home games for NU.
“Unfortunately they made one more play at the end and sometimes that happens,” Casey said. “I can’t stress enough how proud I am at how hard and how passionately these guys played.”