BY MICHAEL MROZIAK email@example.com
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — With the exception of two successful free throws, Antoine Mason couldn’t get the ball to drop in the first eight minutes of Niagara University’s mens basketball game against Brown on Sunday afternoon.
Then he got hot. Very hot. When the final buzzer sounded, Mason scored a career-high 39 points to lead the Purple Eagles’ 68-65 win over the Bears at the Gallagher Center.
What mattered more to the nation’s leading scorer was the number under ‘Niagara’ on the scoreboard.
“I just come out an try to play and get ‘Ws,’ “ Mason said. “Points don’t matter. ‘Ws’ count.”
What mattered more to Niagara head coach Chris Casey was his team’s strong defensive play.
“That was a good college basketball game,” Casey said. “That’s a very good team. It’s a very well coached team. They brought a lot of stuff that makes them hard to defend. They’ve got some guys that can shoot the ball. I thought we did a good job of speeding them up a bit and making them play a little faster than they wanted to. I thought that helped us, and our guys stayed tough when they needed to stay tough.”
Being able to defend Brown (6-5) was most important to preserving Niagara’s lead, especially with the Purple Eagles having some moments when, like Mason experienced early, their hard work simply wasn’t being rewarded with baskets.
“We talk all the time of getting control of the game with your defense and your rebounding,” Casey said.
The defense included two big blocks by Joe Thomas that helped Niagara eventually extend its lead in the late stages of the first half. Thomas, who also scored Niagara’s first four points, finished with three swatted shots.
Even Brown’s head coach, Mike Martin, felt it was Niagara’s defense that made the difference.
“When you turn the ball over 25 times, it’s pretty hard to win a basketball game,” said Martin. “Credit those guys. I just though they played harder and they wanted the game more than we did.”
After sinking three free throws with 12:08 remaining in the first half — his third, fourth and fifth points of the game — Mason answered two consecutive Brown baskets with Niagara’s next 11 points. That burst wiped out Brown’s only lead of the game and sparked a run that had the Purple Eagles leading 39-27 at halftime.
When he wasn’t scoring, Mason was stealing and led the Purple Eagles with six. Marvin Jordan and Rayvon Harris had three steals each while Ramone Snowden and Tahjere McCall had two piece.
McCall also contributed with four key free throws down the stretch. With Brown trailing by only three points with 59 seconds remaining, McCall sank two of those foul shots to help keep the Bears at arm’s length.
As for his thoughts about his own performance? The sophomore was remarkably modest.
“It’s not really anything I’m doing. It’s my teammates putting me into position to win and get assists, and helping me out,” said McCall, who finished with 12 points.
Mason’s 39 points breaks the personal best he set on Nov. 22 in Niagara’s 98-90 loss to Western Carolina. It’s also the most points scored by a Purple Eagle since Charron Fisher netted 41 against Iona on February 16, 2008. (Fisher had also scored 45 points at Loyola just six days prior).
That didn’t matter to the nation’s leading scorer. Mason was more satisfied with the victory, coming off a loss against St. Bonaventure during which his late missed 3-pointer was followed by the Bonnies’ game-winning layup.
“I watched the film on the last possession, and I played with the ball way too much,” Mason said. “I didn’t want to give them that chance of me playing with the ball so I just made my moves and attacked.”