Niagara Winning On The Road

Road teams have won 13 of the 30 games so far in MAAC conference play, one team that’s tied for first place has won the most in the conference. Niagara.

The Purple Eagles have been road tested, winning three of their five MAAC games on the road and are tied with Iona for the best record in conference at 5-1.

“We’re playing good we got three road wins which is really hard to do in this league,” Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich said. “I mean the magic formula is win your home games and win half your road games.”

“We’re learning a lot about ourselves, it sounds like coach talk but we got to show up every night. If you don’t’ show up you lose to Brown, we played well there for 30 minutes.”

Joe Mihalich talks to the Niagara bench.
Joe Mihalich talks to the Niagara bench.

 

Listen: Head Coach Joe Mihalich on beating Fairfield Sunday.

 

The Purple Eagles have won six of their last eight games, getting over .500 for the first time this season with a 9-8 record. During this stretch the Purple Eagles lost at Brown mid-week, where they couldn’t hold on to a lead as large as 17 points and fell in overtime 75-74.

The Purple Eagles have also won three of their six MAAC games that were determined by four points or less, with their closest game being a 67-64 win Sunday to sweep Fairfield for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

Niagara had to withstand multiple opportunities for Fairfield to tie the game, including a foul on a three point shooter, to hold on to their fifth straight conference win.

“It was one of those things I was so proud of our players because at the end, whatever we did, we made it work,” Mihalich said. “I wish I could say, ‘oh man it was just great coaching, everything’ but it wasn’t. It was the players, they made it work.”

“They made the defense work, they made the offense work and players win games. I’m really proud of them.”

Niagara won their second game this season where they shot less than 40% from the field.

They have proven to be a versatile team, excelling offensively as one of the best teams in the league while shoring up their defense. The Purple Eagles have been able to turn teams over on 24.2% of their possessions in conference play, second in the league to Fairfield, while continuing to build on their efficient offense.

The Purple Eagles have won games where one of their top weapons, sophomore Juan’ya Green was held in check for most of the game. Green struggled to score throughout the Fairfield game, but his layups with 15:41 and 3:35 left gave Niagara leads of 44-43 and 61-60 respectively.

“Somebody asked me before the game ‘well Juan’ya always plays good against Fairfield he’s averaging all these points’, first I knew he jinxed him right away just by saying that,” Mihalich said. “But I my answer to him was, it’s not just Juan’ya Green. If he doesn’t have a good night I think we have other people that can step up and it turns out for once I guessed right.”

Freshman T.J. Cline stepped into the lineup off the bench and recorded some of the most crucial points for the Purple Eagles Sunday, none more important than grabbing a loose ball and putting it in to give Niagara a 65-62 lead they would hold on to for the last 55.5 seconds.

“He’s played better than [Sunday],” Mihalich said. “Some people play basketball and some people are basketball players. He’s a basketball player.”

“Not a runner, not a jumper but he has a great nose for the ball, he’s got great instincts, he understands the game. He’s in the right place at the right time. He’s a coaches dream.”

A team filled with freshmen and sophomores has seen more than Cline step in. His classmate Tahjere McCall has stepped up as well, starting the last eight games, providing solid defense and distributing the ball with 46 assists, second only to Green.

The sophomores have taken their game to a higher level this season with Antoine Mason, Green and Ameen Tanksley starting every game. Green scored a season-high 31 points against Fairfield in their first meeting before being held to 5 points Sunday. Tanksley has started every game and has carried the load at times, with a season-high 22 points against Marist earlier this season.

Mason was agressive all game; driving the lane, creating plays and getting to the line to make all 12 of his free throws in Sunday’s win. That aggressiveness was despite Mason picking up his third foul at the start of the half and Mihalich left Mason in for the next six minutes.

“I don’t know where you end that whole theory of saving him,” Mihalich said. “The first half for sure when a guy gets two, we pull him out and keep him for the second half.” “At one point you have to let him play. That’s why we pull him out in the first half, in case he gets a quick third in the second, let him play. If he gets a fourth you have to take him out but he was good.”

Devon White appears to be the missing piece, the senior transfer from LaSalle who sat out until December 8th recovering from an Achilles injury, has started every game and become a strong presence inside for a team dominated by guard play.

Teams will have to travel to Niagara as part of the dreaded Buffalo swing that puts them against Canisius and the Purple Eagles in a three day trip, but for now Mihalich said the team will continue to focus on improving.

“Hopefully we keep learning that we have to show up every night,” Mihalich said. “We keep learning that if we do and we bring a toughness and an attitude with us that we’re capable of winning.”

“In the back of our minds we know that if you don’t come to play in this league, you’re not going to win.”

Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo.

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