By Mike Meiler firstname.lastname@example.org
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — The Niagara Purple Eagles have found all kinds of ways to lose this season.
Buzzer-beaters, blown leads and comebacks coming up just short seemed to occur every other game. Niagara ended the year on a 10-game skid, seven of the losses coming by 6 points or less.
All that changed Thursday night when the Purple Eagles, seeded 11th in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, upset No. 6 Marist, 78-76, at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.
Niagara (7-25) faces third-seeded Quinnipiac at 9 p.m. tonight in the quarterfinals, and head coach Chris Casey hopes defeating their late-game demons could lead the Purple Eagles to more success.
“It’s always big to walk away with a win,” Casey said. “It helps us in the learning process. You have to learn to compete. We hadn’t learned to win close games yet. I think yesterday we hopefully took a step in that direction.”
Niagara led 43-24 at halftime and pushed its lead to 24 points with 12:39 left. From there, the Red Foxes (12-19) closed on a 41-19 run, pushing to tie the game all the way until the final buzzer.
NU’s Antoine Mason gave Marist a chance to tie at the end, missing a pair of free throws with 13 seconds left. After a timeout, Marist’s Khallid Hart missed a 3-pointer and big-man Adam Kemp’s put back attempt fell short as time expired.
A pessimist might point to yet another nearly-blown lead by Niagara, but Casey choses to look at the positives.
“Good teams can win in different ways,” he said. “They can come from behind, win fast, win slow. Yesterday we got ahead and kept them at bay.”
Mason led the Purple Eagles with 38 points on 13-for-19 shooting. He added 12 points on 18 attempts from the charity stripe, a team-high four assists and six rebounds.
The MAAC’s leading scorer said there was no extra motivation after being named second-team all-conference on Monday.
“I’m a competitor,” he said. “It’s not about awards. I just want to win.”
Seniors Marcus Ware and Marvin Jordan also had good showings in what could’ve been their final career game. Ware had a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards and Jordan chipped in 11 points.
The Purple Eagles could’ve used their newfound knowledge on how to win close games last time out against Quinnipiac (19-10). A pair of Mason free throws gave NU a one-point lead with 2 seconds left, but Umar Shannon drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to push the Bobcats to a 90-88 win on Feb. 22.
Mason said he thinks the win against Marist — no matter how it came — will help the Purple Eagles should tonight’s game be close.
“We’ve been tested all season in close games,” he said. “To get one off your back ... it feels good.”
Follow Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.