Saturday, February 13, 2010

Niagara's Win Shows Siena Can Be Beaten

On the day after the second-longest in-season win streak against conference opponents ended, the question now is what did Niagara's 87-74 victory over Siena Friday night actually mean?

Plenty, if you're Niagara coach Joe Mihalich.

"For us this shows that we really are a good team," said Mihalich, during a phone interview Saturday afternoon. "This is what we've been waiting all year for, to show that we are capable of playing this way.

"Clearly it was just a terrific win against a top-30 team in the country. But more than that, we think that's who we are."

Who Niagara always has been during Mihalich's time with the program is what it was Friday night, a high-energy, uptempo team that uses its speed and intensity to be proficient offensively and to cause problems with its quickness on defense.

Mihalich, though, knew much of that had been lacking in what was an uncharacterist and unexpected slow start (6-8 in league play, 13-13 overall) prior to Friday's victory.

"We had been playing this way early in the season (getting off to an 8-4 overall start), but somewhere along the way we lost our fire," said Mihalich.

What Mihalich also lost was 6-5 senior forward Bilal Benn, his team's leading rebounder, for three games after early season arthroscopic knee surgery; and, then, 5-11 senior guard Tyrone Lewis, his top scorer, with knee and shoulder woes for seven games.

In all, Niagara had been without one or the other for nine games this season.

"Did that have an effect on us? C'mon, that's like asking Siena to play without Ronald Moore and one of its other key guys," Mihalich said.

"Then, when they come back there's an adjustment (in terms of on-court chemistry). Against Siena we finally made the adjustment.

"Before that, it was like `OK, we've got those two guys back, so we don't have to play hard anymore.' "

The result had been a 5-9 record over the past 14 games, prior to Friday's victory, for Niagara.

Clearly, Niagara needed a kick start and Mihalich acknowledges the electric atmosphere of a national TV audience (ESPN2), a loud sell-out crowd and the prospect of playing against an opponent that had won its first 14 conference games (only La Salle, which finished the 1989-90 season with a 16-0 MAAC record, had gotten off to a faster start in league competition) all conspired to provide one.

"One key was that Bilal (Benn) played like Bilal ... he was unbelievable (15 points and 11 rebounds, including nine rebounds on the offensive end)," added Mihalich.

"I thought we were one big victory away from putting ourselves back in the picture, and this was it."

Niagara can't get back into the regular-season championship picture. Siena (14-1 now in the MAAC)had already clinched that even before it began its current trip to Western New York (Siena also plays Sunday at Canisius at 2 p.m.).

But the ramifications might be felt in the conference's upcoming post-season tournament.

"No doubt about that," said Mihalich, about whether his team's win creates some optimism around the league that Siena might be vulnerable in the tournament.

"We showed that they're human."

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