By Tim Schmitt
Drawing more than 2,000 pre-teens to the Gallagher Center for the annual Niagara women’s basketball invariably means a noisy environment.
On Wednesday afternoon, the action on the floor was worthy of the screams.
The host Purple Eagles won for the fifth time in six starts, using a tenacious effort on the offensive glass and some timely shooting to nip archrival Canisius 52-49, moving ahead of the Golden Griffins in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings.
Three Purple Eagles scored in double-digits — freshman Kayla Stroman had 11 points while Liz Flooks and Rachele Folino each had 10 — and Niagara (8-13, 5-5 MAAC) got 23 offensive rebounds. The hosts converted that into 21 second-chance points.
“I thought they played a lot harder than us,” Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. “Their effort showed in their offensive rebounds.
Canisius (9-12, 4-6) took a 27-20 lead into the intermission, but the Purple Eagles opened the second half with a 7-0 run capped by Folino’s layup with 17:33 remaining.
From there, the hosts kept roaring to the delight of the youngsters on hand. The Purple Eagles extended their lead on back-to-back 3-pointers by Meghan Waterman and Ali Morris from alternating corners. Another Morris bucket pushed the lead to 40-32 halfway through the second half.
Niagara coach Kendra Faustin, whose team is playing its best ball in her three-year regime, giving the feisty coach reason to smile.
“We’re doing it. We’re playing with confidence, we’re making big shots, we’re moving the basketball, we’re playing as a team,’ Faustin said. “That’s the kind of basketball I love to play and I love to coach. I sit back and say this is what I’ve been waiting for. This is awesome.”
Canisius wouldn’t go quietly, though. After Flooks’ 3-pointer gave Niagara a 48-41 advantage with 2:24 left, the Griffs got a jumper from Brittane Russell, then Micayla Drysdale hit a running layup and was fouled. When she converted the free throw, the Griffs had cut it to 48-46.
Stroman, who defended the high-scoring Russell for most of the afternoon, then hit the biggest shot of her collegiate career, drilling a jumper that just beat the shot clock to put Niagara back up 50-46.
Russell, who led Canisius with 16 points, still wasn’t finished as she somehow canned a 3 from the corner with 1.2 seconds left that pulled it to 50-49. Stroman buried both free throws after being fouled and the Purple Eagles held on for the win.
“In a game that was poorly shot by both teams for a while, I thought in some crunch situations they made some big shots and we did not,” Zeh added. “They deserved to win the basketball game.”
For the Griffs, Tasia Lee and Ashley Durham each added seven points, but senior Ellie Radke, who averages 10.5 points per contest, finished 1-for-12 from the field and had just four points.
“Jaclyn (Koniczka) did a good job defending her,” Faustin said. “Elli’s a really good player, but our post players really stepped up and were active inside. She didn’t get a lot of easy catches let alone easy shots. And she’s not an easy player to defend. She can make threes, she can score inside.”
The crowd, comprised of mostly Niagara Falls-area school kids, stayed into the contest throughout, erupting when the Purple Eagles held on for the win.
“They made big shots, we made shots,” Faustin said. “It was a great atmosphere to have a rivalry game on Kids Day. Overall, I was really pleased.”