By Budd Bailey

Before taking a look at the present state of the Niagara men’s basketball team, it’s only appropriate to take a look back at some of the team’s recent history.

I don’t know if it’s officially Joe Mihalich Week in Niagara County this week, but maybe it should be. He returned to the Purple Eagles campus for a series of events. On Thursday, he took some bows at a dinner held in his honor. On Friday, Joe was saluted at halftime of the game between Niagara and Monmouth, with several of his ex-players coming back to campus to salute him. Then on Saturday, he’ll be given one more honor when he’s formally inducted in Niagara’s Athletics Hall of Fame.

It must be nice to come back to your old stomping grounds, and receive standing ovations wherever you go. Mihalich probably was afraid of going to the Outlet Mall on Friday afternoon, since he’d have to acknowledge applause and shake hands for hours there.

On the other hand, Mihalich deserves it. He made Niagara basketball relevant during his time here. That was impressive at the time, of course, but it becomes more impressive with each passing day.

Mihalich arrived here in 1998 after serving as an assistant at Villanova for 17 years. Apparently he was taking good notes in Philadelphia, but he went 17-12 in his first season here. The Purple Eagles had a winning record for the next seven seasons, took a year off, and were above .500 for another four seasons. Mihalich stayed for 15 seasons.

Along the way, Niagara went to two NCAA tournaments and three NITs, and won four MAAC regular season championships and two playoff titles. Translation: There are 17 postseason banners hanging from the rafters at home, and Mihalich is responsible for five of them. The Purple Eagles won 265 games in that time. That’s not only a Niagara record, but a MAAC record. He was the conference’s coach of the year three times.

Ask Greg Paulus, the current coach at Niagara, how that looks from his seat.

“To have him inducted into the Hall of Fame, to be a part of the event we were able to have for him (Thursday) night – all that he’s done,” he said. “You look up and see the banners – the NCAAs and the NITs. What an impressive legacy. But the bigger thing is how he did it. He did it by bringing the community together. He did it by bringing students in, and by loving Niagara the way he did. There’s such an appreciation for how he did it. My friendship with him is something I cherish, and I’m proud to call him a friend.”

Sure, good coaches have passed through the Metro Atlantic Athletic conference before, and they will again. But usually the coaches at that level of play have one eye on the exit door as soon as they arrive. In a coaching world where it’s a matter of move up or give up, Mihalich stayed. He installed an uptempo system that attracted good offensive players, and those players thrived in it. Fifteen years of entertaining, winning basketball is quite a legacy. He finally left for Hofstra, picking up some more wins and extra spending money on Long Island.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots in college basketball continues to widen. The power schools have the biggest in facilities and huge television contracts to go with a bunch of other advantages. Niagara played all six of its games this year on the road, no doubt in an attempt to pay some of the bills that come with Division I basketball.

There has been a little poignancy behind Mihalich’s visit this year. He suffered a stroke a little more than a year ago. Joe has come a long way in his recovery since then, but he said to have the most trouble in speaking. I’ve never known a basketball coach who was at a loss for words, so Mihalich must have been pained to miss out on the chance to thank everyone.

Then again, his smile during Friday’s ceremony showed how he felt. The college basketball season is just underway, but we’ve already had a feel-good moment worth remembering.

As for the game …

It didn’t take long to figure out that Niagara would have its hands full on Friday night when it hosted Monmouth at the Gallagher Center. The Wolves were 5-1 entering the game, and they won their last game against Cincinnati … at Cincinnati. You’ve heard of the Bearcats – the guys who had Oscar Robertson, the guys who reached the NCAA tournament under coach Bob Huggins. That’s an awfully big win for a team from the MAAC.

The Purple Eagles weren’t outclassed by any means. Even so, they couldn’t keep up with Monmouth in a 57-49 loss. It was the first conference game of the season for both teams. If this is any indicates, the Wolves are going to be a handful for opponents in the MAAC.

It was a game of two halves. Both teams didn’t shoot well, particularly at the start of the game. But Niagara took care of the basketball extremely well, committing only one turnover in the first 20 minutes. The Purple Eagles only trailed once in the first half. Perhaps they missed a chance to build up a lead and their confidence.

“We closed the last three or four minutes, but we certainly had some opportunities there where it didn’t fall for whatever reason,” Paulus said. “Credit to them – they do a good job of mixing up the man and zone.”

Then Niagara forgot how to shoot, which usually is due partly to good defense by the opposition and partly by some bad luck and poor decisions by the offense. In any event, Monmouth turned a 29-29 tie into a 39-31 lead in a four-minute span. The margin went up to 14 at 45-31, and it stayed in double figures through the rest of the half.

“They used their defense to get their offense going,” Niagara’s Marcus Hammond said. “I thought it helped them a lot.”

Interestingly, the Wolves scored their last field goal of the game with 5:43 left. They had five points the rest of the way, and Niagara did enough scoring to get the lead down to five with 56 seconds left. But Monmouth held on for its sixth straight win, while Niagara fell to 3-4.

“They are playing at a high level,” Paulus said about the Wolves. “(Coach) King Rice has done a great job with them. It’s rare to play at such a high level so early in the season. We knew they would present different challenges for us.”

The Purple Eagles host Fairfield on Sunday afternoon, while Monmouth plays Canisius at the same time.

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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