Tonawanda News —
AMHERST — There are big games every season, at every level of basketball across the country. Some are instant classics, but most games fail to live up to the hype.
Friday night was one of those landmark games for the Daemen men's basketball team.
The Wildcats were seeking an unbelievable 30th straight win at home and were hosting a team with a significant size advantage. Long Island University Post knocked off Daemen, 93-85, earlier in the season and the Wildcats, in their first season playing in NCAA Division II's East Coast Conference, needed a win to keep pace with the top teams in the league.
Daemen head coach Don Silveri, in his 25th season on the Wildcats' bench, said afterwards: "That was one of the best games to ever take place in our gym."
After a slow start that led to a 13-point advantage for LIU Post in the first half, the Wildcats came storming back in the second, shooting 61 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes to secure a 94-91 come-from-behind win over the Pioneers. Daemen had five players score in double figures and Silveri said, in crunch time, his four seniors answered the bell.
"When the game was on the line the seniors stepped up. They all did. Those guys refuse to lose," he said. "It's a testament to the seniors and the team in general. Everybody contributed, and I couldn't be happier."
LIU Post dominated the glass in the first half, grabbing nine offensive rebounds and punishing the Wildcats in the paint on both ends of the floor. Wildcats senior Kadeem Johnson scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the first half to help keep Daemen in the game.
"They had some real strong guys inside that don't back down and are real physical. They crash every time and you can't step in that paint without getting banged around," said Johnson, who also had seven rebounds and four assists. "They play tough, but I tried to stay with it — keep crashing the boards and try and match their physicality, which kept us in it for a while. We took a step back early but we stepped it up in the second half."
Like a 15-round title fight, both teams wanted to stand and throw big punches until the final bell. The Pioneers held a 47-45 at halftime and both teams came out in the second half answering every big shot their opponent threw. Neither team held a lead larger than five points in the final 20 minutes.
Daemen took the lead early in the second half, starting off on an 8-2 run. But the Pioneers answered back and retook the lead at 77-75 on a 3-pointer from PJ Torres, who scored a game-high 23 points, with 6:05 left to play.
The teams went back and forth and were deadlocked at 85-85 with just under two minutes to play when the Daemen seniors took over. Uchechi Ogbonna ripped a steal away from LIU Post's Vaughn Allen and found his point guard Mark Coppola, who turned and fired a perfect half-court pass to a streaking Johnson for a transition layup to give Daemen an 87-85 lead.
On the next possession junior Gerald Beverly, who finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, made his fifth block of the night on a driving Pioneer player to send the Wildcats on the break the other way. Coppola, who finished with eight points and eight assists, grabbed the rebound and turned and fired once again to Johnson, who found a trailing Ogbonna for the two-handed dunk.
The Wildcats made 5 of 6 free throws in the final :35 to secure the win.
Senior Casey Sheehan made a number of big plays for the Wildcats, finishing with 17 points and four assists. Ogbonna scored 18 and junior Jordan Greene finished with 12.
With his 17 points, Beverly passed the 1,000-point milestone for his career. The 6-foot-7 center was excited about his accomplishment, but said getting the win was even better.
"This is huge. That's probably one of the best teams in the conference. To take them down is a huge step for us," Beverly said. "The fans had this place rocking, oh my gosh. It was amazing. That was probably one of the loudest games I've had here at Daemen."
Lumsden Gymnasium holds about 600 people and on Friday night there wasn't an open seat in the house. A crowd of fans congregated around the entrance, standing the entire game to watch their team.
Johnson said the atmosphere was the best he's experienced in his four years at Daemen.
Silveri loved the atmosphere as well, and said the fans have helped the team to its 30 straight wins at home.
"It's the second-longest winning streak in the country. It's a great feat, is what it is," Silveri said. "How many teams win 30 in a row at home? That's more than Duke has at home. It's a great feat and a testament to these kids. The fans were right there for us today, the place was packed. It was a great college atmosphere."
The Wildcats are back in action at 3 p.m. Sunday against the New York Technical Institute.
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