Thursday, February 17, 2011

Niagara Men Making Late-Season Progress

Niagara's Joe Mihalich is not only one of the conference's better coaches, but also often serves as one of the MAAC's top spokesmen.

And, once again, Mihalich put his team's meeting with Canisius, the second of the two annual renewals of long-time and geographically proximitous rivals, in perfect perspective:

"That was one for the ages," Mihalich said. "I know we say it every year, but this is why you play the game. This is what college basketball is all about. There's nothing like it. When Niagara plays Canisius, just throw out the records. Nothing matters. It will probably come down to the wire. ... and I don't know if it can come down closer to the wire than this."

It was this close: Canisius rallied from game-long deficits to tie the score at 65 with 6.4 seconds left. That was enough time for Niagara's freshman guard Marvin Jones to get off a shot that was blocked by the Golden Griffins' Tomas Vazquez-Simmons at the buzzer.

Game officials checked replay monitors and determined there to be four-tenths of a second remaining. It was enough time for Niagara's Anthony Nelson to throw an in-bounds pass to teammate Kashief Edwards, who directed the ball towards the hoop. Canisius' 7-foot-3 reserve center Marial Dhal swatted it away, but Edwards' shot was clearly on its downward trajectory ... goal tending, two points for Niagara and a last-tick-of-the-clock victory for the Purple Eagles.

The outcome denied Canisius of its first victory at Niagara's Gallagher Center home since Nov. 30, 2002 and its first sweep of the series between the Western New York rivals in 16 years.

It also got Niagara out of the conference's cellar. The Purple Eagles are now 4-12 in league play.

Its 7-21 regular-season record with just three games remaining prior to the MAAC's post-season tournament ensures just the second sub-.500 record in Mihalich's 13 years with the program.

But, his team has stamped itself, of late, as a team no one wants to see in the upcoming conference tournament. Niagara has won two of its past three games, a 59-57 decision at Loyola this past Friday and, now, this two-point victory over a Canisius team with much on the line, including an opportunity for sole possession of sixth place in the conference, a position that would keep it out of the so-called play-in round for the MAAC tournament.

Instead, a Niagara team beset by injuries and inexperience, is finding ways to win close late-season games.

And, afterwards, Mihalich told the Buffalo News that there is so much optimism within his program that he wishes his team could start its season over right now.

But, there's a second season on the horizon, the post-season tournament. And Niagara is starting to look like a very formidable opponent once that begins.

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