Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — The Niagara Purple Eagles have seemingly found a new way to lose with each game this season.
Thursday night, hosting the Fairfield Stags in a battle to stay out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference basement, the Purple Eagles shot an abysmal 44 percent from the free throw line in a 72-66 loss that sent them to the bottom of the league standings.
“You can’t blame it all on free throws,” said NU coach Chris Casey. “They’re not trying to miss them. I thought in the opening parts of the game, had we made a few, we would’ve put ourselves in a position where we would’ve been ahead.”
The first half was predictably sloppy given the struggles of the two teams.
Fairfield (6-22, 3-14 MAAC) opened the scoring on the first possession when Coleman Johnson knocked down a long 2-pointer. NU’s Wesley Myers, Marcus Ware and Ramone Snowden drew contact on three straight possessions, but combined to hit just 2 of 6 free throws.
“We had some opportunities in the first half to try to stretch a lead and make them play from behind and we did not do that,” Casey said. “We have to make a few more free throws and a few more shots and play from in front rather than behind the whole game.”
That’d be the story of the rest of the game. The Purple Eagles (6-22, 3-14 MAAC) finished 4 for 13 from the stripe in the first 20 minutes. Fairfield closed the half on a 15-4 run during which NU missed four straight free throws, two of which were the front ends of one-and-ones.
The Stags also shot 55.6 percent (5 for 9) from deep in the first, led by two apiece from Steve Johnston and Maurice Barrow. Fairfield led 34-24 at the break.
Niagara wasn’t able to make a substantial run after the break. The Purple Eagles opened with a 5-1 run, but Fairfield responded with a 4-0 spurt. Antoine Mason, Niagara’s leading scorer, slammed home a pair of one-handed dunks in transition, but both times KJ Rose got inside for an answering layup for the Stags.
Fairfield opened up its largest lead, 50-37, with 10:54 left following back-to-back makes from deep by Barrow.
This time, Niagara responded. The Purple Eagles picked up the pace and went on an 11-2 run, capped by Ware hitting a pair of free throws and the crowd responding with an emphatic cheer.
“We wanted to try to get the game going a little bit faster in the second half and I thought to some degree we did,” Casey said.”
Fairfield’s Marcus Gilbert answered with a personal 6-1 run, with Mason sinking 1 of 2 free throws in between. Ware hit a layup in tight and Mason knocked down a pair of free throws to cut the Stags’ lead to 58-53 with 4:25 left.
The tide seemed to be turning as the Niagara defense buckled down the next possession. Johnston was forced to launch a deep 3-pointer from the left elbow as the shot clock expired that found nothing but net, extending the lead again.
Snowden answered with a 3-pointer off a pretty no-look pass from Tahjere McCall, but Gilbert followed with a trey of his own with 2:50 left. Casey called timeout to draw up a play, but Mason clanked a corner three off the iron.
Johnston hit another 3-pointer behind a screen to push the lead to nine with 2:09 left and the Stags his 5 of 9 free throws to seal the win.
“That’s a big three,” Mason said of Johnston’s deep make, “but we just got to keep playing. We can’t just quit when that happens.”
Mason had a forgetful night from the field, going 8 for 21 (1 for 6 from deep) and hitting 5 of 9 free throws for 22 points. He surpassed Charron Fisher (’08) for fourth on NU’s all-time scoring list with 1,802.
Freshman Wesley Myers had the best offensive performance, going 7 for 10 from the field and 3 for 4 from the line for a career-high 17 points. Myers’ progression has been one of the few bright spots for the Purple Eagles this season.
“(Myers) is doing a lot of good things with the ball offensively and his defense is getting significantly better,” Casey said. “When you watch him at practice, he comes to practice focused, whereas early in the year, coming out of high school, I don’t think he understood the value of practice.”
Ware and Snowden narrowly missed double-doubles, with Ware scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds and Snowden finishing with 10 and eight.
Barrow led the Stags with 19, hitting five 3-pointers.
Niagara wraps up its home slate at 3 p.m. Saturday when it hosts MAAC foe Quinnipiac at the Gallagher Center. The game will mark the final home contest for four-year senior Marvin Jordan and Ware, who transferred in this season.
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