Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — For the second game in a row, fans at the Gallagher Center were sent home stunned as the Niagara University men’s basketball team found itself on the wrong end of a one-point loss.
This time it was the Manhattan Jaspers (17-6, 10-4 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) who denied Niagara (6-19, 3-11 MAAC) a last-second win when Rhamel Brown blocked the would-be game winning shot by Rayvon Harris and sealed the 78-77 decision.
It was yet another heartbreaker for Niagara, which lost to Iona Friday on a last-second 3-pointer. Even more disappointing for Niagara was that the loss came in spite of a 33-point performance by Antoine Mason.
“I’m really proud of our guys to come off of what they came off of on Friday and show the same fight that they showed, because we did fight for it,” said Niagara head coach Chris Casey. “I do believe we’re getting better and we need to continue on an upward trend and we have to go through the pains of learning how to play at the end of the game.”
Before Brown dealt Niagara the block that prevented a last-second win, he combined with George Beamon to to put the Jaspers ahead, 10-0, early in the first half.
Manhattan also applied intensive pressure on the Purple Eagles early, especially in Niagara’s end. Eventually the Purple Eagles were able to work through that pressure and get the ball to Mason, who hit three 3-pointers and a layup in a roughly three and a half minute span.
Foul calls played a big part in the game. The teams combined for 56 infractions, Niagara committing 29 of them.
“The referees directly affected the way we had to adjust,” said Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, who suggested his team perhaps stole a win rather than earned it. “We had to adjust not to Niagara, but to the refs. That’s no knock on Niagara, but we did that.”
The high volume of fouls allowed Niagara back into the game, as Tahjere McCall got hot on the free-throw line. His eight free throws accounted for half of his total 16 points.
By the 12:10 mark of the first half, Niagara was whittling away a deficit that was a high as 11 points. Then Joe Thomas brought his team and the fans to life with a steal in his own end and a big dunk on the following possession. At that moment, Niagara trailed 29-24 but McCall cut the lead even further with a pair of free throws. By halftime, Niagara trailed the Jaspers by just two points, 39-37.
Niagara’s Marcus Ware opened the second half with two foul shots that tied the game. After a single successful foul shot by Brown, Mason put the home team ahead 41-40 with a layup. The teams then traded leads for most of the half.
The Purple Eagles opened up a 63-58 lead with 9:58 remaining when Wesley Myers sank a 3-pointer. Mason put up another layup and sank two free throws as Niagara put itself ahead, 67-61 with just under eight minutes remaining.
Manhattan took back the lead for good with just under three and a half minutes remaining. After the Jaspers’ Shane Richards missed a 3-point attempt, Ware drove to the basket but was called on an offensive charging foul. It was his fifth foul, taking him out of the game.
Manhattan’s Beamon responded with the go-ahead basket, followed by a steal by Michael Alvarado that set up another two points by Brown.
Two successful free throws by Mason put Niagara behind by just one point. Harris grabbed the rebound of a missed Beamon jumper with 11 seconds left and Niagara called a time out. Manhattan followed with its own.
“I called time out, my seniors grabbed me and said they’ve got it,” said Masiello when recalling how they drew up their final defensive play. “I said let’s get Mason. Make someone else get (the ball). If he gets it let’s run someone at him.”
They got their wish, as Harris made the final drive to the basket, where Brown met him with the big stuff.
Mason and McCall met with reporters after the game and both were asked about undergoing the pains of a rebuilding team one year after playing on a roster that went to the National Invitation Tournament.
“Like Coach Casey said, you’re going to go through changes in your life all the time,” McCall said. “It’s just how you look at them and how you will tackle them. We still can do the same thing this year, it’s just going to be a different road to it.”
“Two tough games this weekend, both by one (point), but as coach said we’re getting better,” said Mason. “I know my teammates and me personally, we’re not scared of anybody. We’re getting more confident. We’re playing together better as a team. We’re getting close to the end. We’ve just got to finish on the right cut.”
Next up for the Purple Eagles is a Valentine’s Day matchup against regional rival Canisius College in the latest round of the Battle of the Bridge. Friday night’s game against the Golden Griffins will tip off at 9 p.m at the Gallagher Center.