Antoine Mason had the ball near the three-point area, the shot clock ticking away and Niagara nursing a three-point lead over Brown. It was a moment that played over and over in his mind for the better part of a week.
Mason was in a similar situation in the Purple Eagles’ last game against St. Bonaventure with the game tied and the ball in his hands. He said he played with the ball too much in the Bona game, forcing up a heavily contested jumper and the shot clock ticked down to zero. The Bonnies escaped with a last-second victory leaving Mason humiliated.
Forced again to put the finishing touches on the game, Mason didn’t play around sinking a 6-foot floater over two defenders with 20 seconds remaining to propel the Purple Eagles to a 68-65 triumph over Brown in front of 1,411 at the Gallagher Center on Sunday.
The clincher was Mason’s 39th point, a career best for the nation’s leading scorer, and the most by a Niagara player since Charron Fisher poured in 45 against Loyola (Md.) on Feb. 10, 2008. It was also the third highest point total by a Purple Eagle in the last seven seasons.
Niagara (4-9) led by 17 points with 14:30 remaining before Brown (6-5) stormed back primarily by limiting turnovers and a renewed defensive effort. The Bears closed within three with 53 seconds left after two free throws by Sean McGonagill before the Purple Eagles placed the ball in the hands of Mason, who entered the game averaging 28.3 points.
“I said right after the Bonaventure game we’re going right back to you in some way shape or form,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “And that’s what we did. I believe in him, his teammates believe in him. One play doesn’t win or lose a game by any means but you want guys to be able to make big plays.”
Mason pointed the finger at himself for the St. Bonaventure loss because that’s what leaders do and longed at another shot at redemption. It wasn’t a long wait.
“I watched the film on the last possession and I played with the ball way too much like I said,” Mason said. “I didn’t want to give then that chance of me playing with the ball so I just made my move and attacked.”
The Purple Eagles gave Mason the ball with a 66-63 lead and 10 seconds left on the shot clock. He froze Tavon Blackmon, slithered into the lane with a crossover dribble and lofted a soft runner over the outstretched arms of Rafael Maia and Steven Spieth that climbed into the net.
“It’s not surprising to me because I know in his mind no one can stop him,” said Niagara guard Tahjere McCall, who finished with 12 points, five rebounds and two steals. “When it’s time for him to score he’s going to go get a bucket, when it’s time to pass he’s going to pass it. So you always know with ‘Toine he’s going to get whatever you need for the best shot.”
Brown coach Mike Martin hoped the ball would go to either Marcus Ware (.692 percent free-throw shooter) or Rayvon Harris (.523). Martin told his players to foul either one of them, send them to the line and extend the game but don’t foul Mason, McCall or Marvin Jordan. No way Mason was giving up the ball.
“They did a good job putting the ball in the hands of the guy they wanted and he made a good play,” Martin said. “It was a contested floater and we had some size in there. ... He’s pretty good.”
Mason gets most of his points from the line and that was the case again (14 for 17), but he also had a team-high six of Niagara’s 16 steals. The Purple Eagles converted 21 points off the Bears’ 25 turnovers.
“He leads the country in scoring for a reason,” Martin said. “One thing you notice about Niagara and I watched a lot of film on them is if you turn the ball over, live ball turnovers, they usually lead to layups and run outs for Mason and he got a lot of points in transition.
“Obviously he scored in every way: jump shots, in the paint, against our zone, against our man. But he gets going when he gets transition baskets.”
Niagara visits Rider at 7 p.m. Thursday.