By Budd Bailey
Niagara coach Greg Paulus didn’t feel like talking about the conference seeding race in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference after the Purple Eagles beat Fairfield 76-68 in the Gallagher Center on Friday night.
“We didn’t talk about the seedings,” Paulus said. “For us, it was just about getting back to Niagara basketball, and learning from the last couple of games.”
Well, if he doesn’t want to discuss it, someone should. It turned out the game that ended the Eagles’ three-game losing streak was particularly well timed.
Niagara improved to 10-8 in conference play (15-12 overall). That’s good for fifth place in the MAAC standings. It’s only a half-game behind Quinnipiac (10-7). More to the point, Manhattan lost on Friday to fall to 8-9, and Fairfield’s defeat left the Stags at 8-10. That’s a good-sized lead for the Eagles in terms of staying where they are.
Niagara obviously would rather be on top of the conference race, which is where Iona resides (13-3 after a win Friday). But if a team is going to be down the ladder a bit, fifth place is about as low as you want to go. If the Purple Eagles stay there, they’d avoid the dreaded first-round game of the conference’s lesser teams. And as we all know, the best way to avoid an upset early in the MAAC tournament is not to play at all and enjoy the opening bye.
The streaky Purple Eagles deserved this win, which was a welcome sight after recent road losses to Mount St. Mary’s and Marist last weekend.
“This was a big-time win,” Noah Thompson of Niagara said. “We can’t get too big-headed. We’ll celebrate this one tonight, especially after losing three games in a row.”
If there was a theme to this game, it was the Eagles’ ability to take the ball to the rim. Niagara scored an impressive 54 points in the paint on the night, rolling up the points on drives and lay-ups. When you are close to the basket, the ball usually has a better chance of going into the basket. The Purple Eagles shot 68 percent from the field in the second half, and 57.7 percent overall. They also only had five turnovers.
“It was what they gave us,” Paulus said. “They do such a good job of defending the three-point line. …. We thought if we could take away one or two three(-pointers) from them, continue to be aggressive, we could string together a run…. We were able to finish at the basket.”
Meanwhile, they only took nine three-pointers in the entire game, sinking only two of them. Fairfield was 9 of 21 from long distance, so Niagara had to compensate from the Stags’ “extra” 21 points from the outside. It did that and then some.
It was a game of two halves for the Purple Eagles. They started slowly, falling behind by a 12-4 score and spent most of the rest of half trying to get back to level. The final did so with 11 seconds to go, but Fairfield pulled back ahead on a three by Allan Jeanne-Rose (17 points).
But Niagara came out aggressively after halftime. With the score 38-37 Fairfield, the Eagles scored four straight baskets on drives to the basket – three of them by Thomasson.
“I think that’s my game all of the time – getting the ball, going downhill and creating plays for myself and others,” he said. “Sometimes my three-ball is off. It’s been off the last couple of games, so the point of emphasis has been getting downhill.”
The Stags never had the lead after that. When Fairfield closed to within one at 61-60, Aaron Gray (three-pointer) and Thomasson (another drive) restored order.
Thomasson finished with 25 points on 11 of 18 shooting, while Braxton Bayless set a career-high with 19 points.
“They were running man(-to-man), so I just took advantage of that,” Bayless said. “I got my head together. I knew I was due for a game like this.”
If Niagara can meet those standards the rest of the way, it will be a tough opponent for almost anyone in the MAAC tournament. But first, there’s the matter of finishing the home schedule Sunday afternoon against Saint Peters’s, and then playing at Canisius on Thursday night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)