Perennial contender Niagara's experienced talent core refused to see its season come to an end, while western New York's other conference representative, Canisius, saw similar aspirations come to an end on a bizarre circumstances that forced it to play without its top player for the last five minutes of its game.
Niagara rode senior standouts guard Tyrone Lewis (21 points) and forward Bilal Benn (16 points, 11 rebounds), particularly down the stretch to hold off No. 3 seed Iona, 68-64, in a late Saturday night game that went fairly deep into Sunday morning before it ended.
The winners rallied from a 51-48 deficit with 6:17 remaining. Lewis scored nine of Niagara's final 20 points.
The outcome could be the start of some vindication for a team predicted in preseason to finish second and, instead, finished sixth in the final standings. Niagara now has an 18-14 overall record.
"These guys hate to lose," said veteran Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "They are the most competitive guys I've ever been around."
Sophomore point guard Scott Machado led the way for Iona with 17 points, while junior forward Alejo Rodriguez added 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Iona finishes with a 21-10 record, probably not good enough to continue playing in post season (the NIT), but still a strong season.
"If anyone told me we would get 21 victories at the start of the season, I'd have taken it," said Iona coach Kevin Willard. "This is disappointing, but I'm proud of my team."
Niagara advances to tangle with No. 2 seed Fairfield in Sunday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal-round contest.
The Stags held off an impressive second-half charge from Canisius to earn a 67-57 victory.
Canisius, which finishes at 15-17, trailed, 35-14 at halftime, but had rallied back to within 50-43 left on senior guard Frank Turner's driving layup with 5:13 left to play.
Turner got tangled among bodies around the baseline after making the shot, twisted around and one of his hands hit Fairfield guard Derek Needham in the stomach area.
Game officials viewed a replay of the play, ruled Turner's contact with Needham was intentional and ejected the Canisius guard from the contest.
"The kid played here four years and never did a thing wrong," said Canisius coach Tom Parrotta. "That was an unintentional contact. This is a shame."
Afterwards, game official John Hughes told a pool reporter that the replay indicated that Turner's contact with Needham was intentional.
"... as he (Turner) turns to play defense ... as he's running back, he hits him (Needham) in the testicles," said Hughes. "It was not an unintentional act."
When asked to clarify if "unintentional" meant on purpose, Hughes replied, "Absolutely."
Brad Tracy, the MAAC Supevisor of Men's Basketball Officials, explained that once the officials checked the game monitor, by rule, they had to call either a flagrant foul or no foul. A "common foul" cannot be called once replay is used.
Ejection is automatic iin the event of a flagrant foul, Tracy said.
Turner's departure ended what was shaping up as a spectacular one-on-one battle between him and Needham down the stretch.
Turner had 12 points in the second half run that got Canisius back in the game, while Needham responded in kind with 10 points in a five-minute mid-second half stretch that enabled his team to hold the league.
"We were having fun out there," said Needham. "The old guy (Turner is a senior) was trying to show the new kid (Needham is a freshman) something, and the new kid was trying to give it back to the old guy."
Needham even defended Turner, afterwards, on the call that resulted in the Canisius guard's ejection.
"I don't think he meant to hit me on purpose," said Needham. "He was off balance and it was one of those things."
Needham, the MAAC's Rookie of the Year, finished with a game-high 29 points, and teammate senior center Anthony Johnson added 16 points.
Fairfield is now 21-9 overall, only the sixth 20-victory season in its Division I history and first since the 1995-96 season.