The Niagara Purple Eagles laid claim to third place in the MAAC and remain in the hunt for the league’s top spot with a thrilling 85-84 win over Iona in New Rochelle.
Niagara jumped out to a 10-2 lead in the opening minutes behind eight points from senior guard Matt Scott, but the Purple Eagles’ star would not finish the frame. With 9:14 remaining in the first half, Scott landed at an awkward angle under his team’s basket. He was helped to the bench and later left toward the locker room on crutches.
In Scott’s absence, Iona built a double digit advantage into the break. Rickey McGill’s layup to open the second half pushed the Gaels’ lead to 12, the largest of the night, as the home team looked poised to take advantage of Niagara’s shortcoming.
However, a 10-2 Purple Eagle run midway through the second half capped by a Greg Kuakumensah layup pulled Niagara even at 66 with 9:24 remaining.
“Really courageous performance by our guys,” head coach Chris Casey said. “I say that not in a way where I’m surprised, because I’m really not. I’ve said this over and over about this group. This group is a team and if you go back and you look as us throughout the season there’s been different guys at different times that have stepped up and made plays for us from the first guy all the way down to the thirteenth guy.”
One of those “guys” Friday night was sophomore guard James Towns, who led all scorers with 20 points and matched his career high with seven assists. Towns has evolved into a reliable member of Niagara’s volatile backcourt over the course of this season and has now broken the 20-point threshold three times in his last six games.
“Just being confident, the older people picking me up even when I’m down,” Towns said of his growth. “Going against them in practice every day, it made me compete so I feel like that’s helping me.”
Niagara never led by more than three in the second half, but Kahlil Dukes’ layup put the visitors up by that margin with just 3:43 to play. As the spectators held their breath, each team was held scoreless for over two minutes before a pair of Roland Griffin free throws pulled Iona within one with 1:33 remaining.
After a pair of empty possessions, Niagara’s Marvin Prochet stepped to the line for a pair of free throws with just 10 seconds left on the clock. Just 1-4 from the stripe to that point, Prochet calmly sank both free throws.
“One thing about me, is I work on my game often,” Prochet said “In practice, we do pressure free throws. In those moments, you’ve just got to be relaxed. You can’t overthink it. This is something I do every day, so it’s kind of muscle memory.”
McGill and Dukes followed with matching 1-2 trips to the line before Roland Griffin again stepped to the line with his team down three and three seconds on the clock. After missing the first, Griffin intentionally missed the second and Jan Svandrlik came through with a layup. However, Niagara quickly inbounded to Dukes who ran out the clock before the Gaels could foul.
“You’ve got to make plays if you want to win in this league, the league is good,” Iona coach Tim Cluess lamented. “You’re playing one of the better teams tonight that has guards that are really good and they wanted the game. So did our guys; our guys played hard, it wasn’t about effort. It’s just about do you make more plays or not.”
Griffin led the Gaels with 17 points, and has been one of the bright spots even through a night where the team shot just 25.9% from behind the arc and a stretch which has resulted in losses in three of four games.
“He’s been our most steady player for the last three or four games now and he’s progressing in a really good way,” Cluess said of Griffin. “He’s a big part of our team now and I’m really looking forward to having an offseason with him which we haven’t had yet in order to prepare him for next year. I think he’s going to be a dynamite player for us the rest of the way.”
E.J. Crawford capped the night with 16 points and matched a season-high with seven rebounds while Schadrac Casimir finished with 15 points after being honored prior to the game for reaching 1,000 career points last time out at Siena. Freshman Gavin Kensmil gave the Gaels an early boost and finished with a personal-best nine points.
“He played really hard with a really good motor and we thought his energy would help us today,” Cluess said of Kensmil. “We got off to another poor start where guys just think they’re going to show up and play, and Gavin came in and brought energy.”
Dukes finished with 17 points for Niagara while Prochet posted 14 with eight rebounds. Greg King and Kevin Larkin each set new career highs in rebounding with 12 and 11 respectively as the Purple Eagles won the battle of the boards 49-37.
With March fast approaching each team possessing questions to answer, it was Cluess – whose Gaels dropped four of their last seven MAAC contests last season before running the table in Albany – who best summed up what to expect in the weeks ahead.
“We had ups and downs last year too,” Cluess said. “It’s whether or not you can get on a good swing when the playoffs come and can you make shots at that time. Whoever makes shots at that time is winning the tournament and whoever misses shots is going home.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.