SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – When an eight-point lead vanishes and impending victory gives way to season-ending defeat, there’s an assumption that things must have gone terribly awry. But Niagara’s downfall in its 66-62 loss to Monmouth on Thursday morning can be distilled to one fundamental truth: The eight-seeded Purple Eagles couldn’t close the deal because they couldn’t put the ball in the basket.
Niagara appeared destined for advancement into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference women’s quarterfinals when it opened a 57-49 advantage with 7:01 remaining over a team it beat twice during the regular season. The Purple Eagles had launched 20 second-half shots at that point. Eleven of them hit the mark. A squad that can punish opponents from the perimeter found its offensive rhythm and looked ready to put away the Hawks.
From there they went as cold as the not-so-cozy MassMutual Center on a 13-degree morning. Despite working the offense for a good number of clear shots, Niagara made just one of its last 13 attempts and failed to score from the field once a Meghan McGuinness trey opened a 59-56 lead with 4:24 remaining.
That frigid finish carved a comeback trail for ninth-seeded Monmouth and its sizable front court. A layup by Sara English, a 6-foot-4 junior, put the Hawks ahead for good at 60-59 and Christina Mitchell, a 6-4 freshman, finished the Purple Eagles with a rebound basket with 31 seconds left. The follow-up came after Niagara defended Monmouth deep into the shot clock, and forced Chevannah Paalvast into a hurried 15-footer.
“It was easy,” said Mitchell (team-high 14 points). “I just got the ball and put it back up.”
“She saved my behind,” Paalvast said. “I’m thankful for that.”
Niagara neutralized Monmouth’s size advantage when the shots were falling but was victimized on the boards when they were not. The Hawks owned a 48-37 rebounding advantage, with Mitchell pulling down a game-high 13, including five on the offensive end.
“If I would have anticipated that we probably would have changed some things,” said Niagara coach Kendra Faustin. “We went defense-offense and put Donisha Watson in defensively in hopes of closing that gap in rebounding, but their post did a great job really crashing the boards.”
A 27-24 halftime deficit dissolved in a flash as Niagara came out and buried shots. McGuinness (13 points) and Val McQuade (11) were the catalysts in a 4-for-6 start from behind the arc before the Purple Eagles connected on just one of their last five long-range attempts.
“Kelly Van Leeuwen had nine assists and zero turnovers, and she should have probably had 15 assists and zero turnovers,” Faustin said. “We were able to get some good looks, and she did a great job making decisions.”
“We were getting good looks,” McGuinness said.
“Even if we struggle we still have to keep shooting,” said senior guard Chanel Johnson. “Offensively, we’re a really good team.”
The Purple Eagles finish 10-20 and graduate just one senior, Johnson, their leading scorer at 13 points per game. She had a team-high 14 in her Niagara finale.