By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A look at the Metro Atlantic men’s basketball standings right now may cause you to rub your eyes or clean your glasses.
But a second look doesn’t change the situation one bit.
That’s Niagara, the formerly 0-5 Niagara, enjoying the view from the top.
“We don’t talk about that,” coach Greg Paulus of the Purple Eagles said about the conference race after his team’s second dramatic victory of the weekend – a 72-71 thriller over Siena before 1,020 in the Gallagher Center. “It’s about us and how we can grow, and how we can continue to get better.
“I talked about this on Friday – whether we win a close game or lose one, we don’t want it to take away from our process. This is a long journey, and right now we want to take steps forward. So that’s what we want to do – watch the film, see what areas we can improve on, and continue to work hard.”
Well, someone should talk about life in the penthouse, at least for the moment.
Niagara improved to 4-2 in the Metro Atlantic Conference, 6-11 overall, with Sunday’s win. That’s good to be part of a four-way tie for the division lead; Monmouth, Quinnipiac and Manhattan are also at 4-2. There is a good-sized pack of teams that are either at .500 or just below it.
Yes, the MAAC doesn’t appear to have a dominant squad this season. What’s more, most of the teams in the conference schedule plenty of road games against better teams before the start of MAAC play. That’s good for the budget but bad for the record. So here we are, in mid-January, and the league looks wide open.
That means there’s opportunity for Niagara, which is all you can ask for at this stage.
“We’re continuing to take steps forward,” Paulus said. “You see in the locker room how the players are sharing things with each other. That’s what it’s all about.”
Here’s all you need to know about what sort of day it was: Niagara didn’t have the lead in the first 39 minutes and 16 seconds of the game. In fact, Siena started the game with a 9-0 run – a sure sign that it was not going to be an easy day.
“Siena is difficult to guard,” Paulus said. “They shot 50 percent. They came out and got right away with a 9-0 run. We had to call timeout to regroup a little.”
From there, the game followed a predictable pattern. Niagara would close in a bit, and Siena would respond and pull away for a while. Back and forth. The Purple Eagles never could get the lead, but they were never completely out of range either. The margin hit 10 a couple of times along the way.
Niagara put on a 9-1 run in the middle of the second half to tie the score, 52-52, with 11:09 to go. The Saints answered with two free throws, two drives, a layup, and a free throw to make it a 61-54 game with seven minutes left. Little did Siena know that it would only score two field goals the rest of the way – and one was a desperation three with a second left that ultimately didn’t matter.
The Purple Eagles slowly pecked away. Greg Kuakumensah had a couple of big baskets to twice tie the game in the final few minutes. Then with the score tied, 68-68, in the final minute, Raheem Solomon of Niagara cut to the basket and drew a goaltending call.
“I was able to read the defender,” Solomon said. “That’s what the play is for.”
Wrapping things up
A missed Siena three and two free throws by Niagara’s Shandon Brown follows, and the Purple Eagles were on their way to their third straight win. It may not have been as heart-stopping as Friday’s game, when Marcus Hammond threw in a jumper from the baseline to win at the buzzer, but it will do.
Kuakumensah led Niagara with 17 points in 25 minutes off the bench on 8 of 11 shooting, while Solomon had 16 and Hammond added 12. Manny Camper of Siena led all scorers with 21 points.
“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to play,” Paulus said. “But we kept at it, kept chipping away, and executed just enough to get it done. These guys keep making plays. They deserve the credit. These last couple of games, we’ve had a different way of doing it.”
So hope exists for a Niagara program that usually has been doing more looking up than down in the MAAC standings. We’ll see if the Eagles can create some more chaos next weekend with visits to Monmouth and Saint Peter’s.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)