By Mike Meiler firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — For 40 minutes Friday night, the Niagara University men's basketball team out-hustled the visiting Iona Gaels.
For 10 seconds, it killed them.
Down two as time dwindled off the clock, Iona's Tavon Sledge came up with a loose ball and found a wide-open AJ English on the right elbow. English, left alone after two Niagara players dove for the ball, put up a 3-pointer that spun through the hoop with 7.9 seconds left to give the Gaels a 90-89 win in front of a stunned crowd of 1,259 at the Gallagher Center.
It was Niagara's fourth loss by less than five points this season and the second time this year the Purple Eagles (6-18, 3-10 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) lost on a late basket at home. St. Bonaventure pulled out a 74-72 win Dec. 21 on a buzzer-beating layup.
"I don't know why this is happening, but there's a reason," said NU coach Chris Casey. "And at some point we'll figure out that reason."
NU led 86-74 with 4:09 remaining after trailing by as many as 12 in the first half. The Purple Eagles went into halftime on an 11-4 run and trailed 45-41.
Iona (14-8, 11-2 MAAC) went on a 15-3 run over the game's final four minutes. Niagara did almost everything a team could do to give up a late lead, sending the Gaels to the line and missing its final five free throws. Tahjere McCall's go-ahead 3-pointer rang off the back of the iron and Rayvon Harris' last-ditch put back attempt was way off as time expired.
"I'm proud of our guys for fighting to the very end and finding a way to win on a night when, to be honest, Niagara outplayed us the entire game," Iona coach Tim Cluess said.
Iona built up its early lead on lights-out 3-point shooting. Niagara attempted 15 more field goals (41-26) in the half and finished with twice as many points in the paint (24-12) and a huge advantage in second-chance points (14-0). But the Gaels went 8 for 16 from beyond the arc and shot 53.8 percent overall compared to 2 for 10 and 39 percent for NU.
Niagara took its first lead of the second half with 18:20 remaining when senior Marcus Ware finished a layup inside. Ramone Snowden hit a 3-pointer with 13:36 remaining to give Niagara a 62-60 lead it'd hold until English's winner.
"I (felt) like (the game) was getting away, but I didn't feel like we would lose," said Iona forward David Laury, who scored a game-high 28 points. "We always go on big scoring spurts. There are so many people for us that can get it going, especially from the perimeter ... We're hardly ever out of a game."
Niagara won nearly every key statistical category. The Purple Eagles out rebounded the Gaels (48-30), attempted more shots (77-53), commited less turnovers (10-13), scored more points in the paint (56-26) and more second-chance points (22-0). Iona's great equalizer was the 3-pointer, and the Gaels knocked down 14 from long range.
NU entered the game shorthanded with senior Marvin Jordan home in Peoria, Ill. tending to his ailing grandmother. The Purple Eagles got another scare early in the second half when junior Antoine Mason, who entered the game leading the nation in scoring, collided with Snowden while going for a rebound and remained down. He returned and said after the game that he was dealing with cramps in his calf.
Mason struggled, going 6 for 18 from the field and 0 for 6 from deep and finishing with 13 points. He missed a pair of free throws with 21 seconds remaining and Niagara holding an 89-87 lead, though his injury was clearly affecting his release.
Other Purple Eagles picked up the slack with career performances. Harris notched his first career double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Snowden picked up his second double-double of the year with a team-high 18 points and 10 boards. Freshman Wesley Myers chipped in a career-best 16 points, hitting 3 of 5 from deep.
Niagara will get another shot at one of the MAAC's top teams when it hosts Manhattan at 2 p.m. Sunday. The Jaspers are tied for second in the conference.
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