By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Sometimes, it’s necessary to be reminded just how diverse the sport of college basketball can be.
Turn on the television most winter nights, and you’ll see future pros in action. They will be performing before full houses and the bright lights of TV. Then those teams are the subjects of months-long debate about what they’ll do when The Big Dance arrives in mid-March.
That’s why a trip to a place like the Gallagher Center at Niagara University is so instructive. Yes, it’s Division I basketball, so teams like Niagara and Iona – Friday’s opponents – could in theory reach the Final Four and play a Duke or Kansas for the national championship. It’s not likely, but at least it is possible.
Niagara’s home building is a small one; it could get lost in a corner of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. There’s one ticket window and one souvenir stand. Still, there’s plenty of history here. It must have been fun to watch Calvin Murphy go off for 35 a night in this place back in the late 1960s.
The Gallagher Center was less than half full on Friday – students are on break for a while longer – and that was too bad. Those who had other things to do missed a good one, as Niagara came away with a 95-90 win.
“I thought it was a really entertaining game,” coach Chris Casey of the Purple Eagles said. “95-90 is a great score. Really proud of our guys, how tough we stayed against a very good team that really keeps coming at you.
“On the flip side of that, we really kept coming at them. We stayed aggressive. If you look at some of the things we did offensively, we had 18 assists, we had 47 points off the bench, and we had 14 offensive rebounds (as part of a 51-29 overall rebounding edge).”
A game of runs
Sometimes a high scoring game is a case of two teams trading baskets for 40 minutes. This was not that game. In the first half, Niagara gave up 10 straight points to fall behind, 22-13, with 11:43 left. But the Eagles caught up, and then went on a 10-1 burst to take a 43-34 lead with only 1:28 left until intermission.
Iona never led after that, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting. The Gaels were down by one with 13 minutes to go, only to see Niagara jump out to a 72-59 lead with 9:49 to go. By then, you just knew that Iona might make it interesting and it did. The Gaels trailed by 93-90 with three seconds left and had the ball. But, Asante Gist had a shot blocked by Dominic Robb, and that was that.
“I definitely got a piece of it,” Robb said. “I knew they needed a three, so I could press up a little more. It ended up working out.”
“We had a little bit of a stretch in the first half where we got some stops, and that got us the lead,” Casey said. “Another stretch came in the second half, where it got us a good lead back after they cut it to two. Those were two important stretches. Then we did what we talk about all the time – play from in front, and hold them off at the end.”
Individually, Marvin Prochet continued the level of play that certainly will put him in consideration for all-star honors in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference at season’s end. He put up 20 points and 10 rebounds, a slight improvement over his season averages.
“Any coach would want that,” Casey said. “But all our seniors are like this. They all have shown leadership, by example and by opening their mouth. Marv’s numbers are terrific, and he’ll keep putting up good numbers. But more so it’s his attitude.”
Robb chipped in with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Raheem Solomon had 18 points off the bench, including a trio of three-pointers that really gave the Purple Eagles a boost.
Iona had three players who were a handful for Niagara. E.J. Crawford finished with 23 points, while Tajuan Agee and Rickey McGill had 22 each. But the Gaels’ bench was outscored, 47-6.
Out of the basement
This was a good win for a Niagara team that started the MAAC portion of the schedule at 0-2. You don’t want to fall too far behind in January.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Casey said. “We took a little bit of a hit on the road trip, and we bounced back.”
It’s always tough to predict what the MAAC will look like during its regular season, no matter what happens in the early part of the schedule. Teams often play most of their games on the road in November and December, so won-loss records can turn up out of focus.
“We’ll look at the game – players and coaches alike,” Casey said. “We’ll keep doing it. We’ll see what we need to improve on. Then at midnight, it goes in the rear-view mirror. You have to improve one day at a time.”
Niagara goes back to work at home on Sunday afternoon against the preseason pick in the conference in Rider. That has a chance to be another exciting, competitive game.
And who could ask for more than that – at any level, in any building?
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)