BY MICHAEL MROZIAK firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — By taking a quick glance at the final score, you wouldn’t know that the Niagara University women’s basketball team was leading one of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s top teams for most of the game.
In a span of three minutes, however, the Iona Gaels erased a seven-point deficit and capitalized on late free throws to pull away from the Purple Eagles, 94-84, at the Gallagher Center on Sunday afternoon.
It looked like Niagara (3-10, 1-3 MAAC) had the right formula to upset the Gaels (11-2, 4-0 MAAC), who entered the game on a nine-game winning streak. Defensive rebounding was superb, with Niagara pulling down 22 rebounds in its own end, led by Gabby Baldasare with six.
The Purple Eagles also held the nation’s third-leading scorer, Iona guard Damika Martinez, to just four points in the first half. Unfortunately, they learned in the second half that the Gaels have much more offensive firepower available.
“We did a great job defending her in the first half and the whole game, actually,” said Niagara head coach Kendra Faustin. “We made some poor choices on the weak side of our zone, and those are adjustments that we just didn’t make.”
Leading Iona’s second-half comeback were Aleesha Powell and Joy Adams, who finished the game with 25 and 22 points, respectively.
“I think we have a great bench, a lot of great energy coming off the bench,” Powell said. “If we don’t have that we wouldn’t be where we are.”
After Martinez opened the scoring with a 3-pointer to put the visitors ahead, Niagara’s Meghan McGuinness responded with a jumper, followed by Val McQuade hitting her own three. It would be the start of a half that, for the most part, saw both sideds keeping pace with each other. McGuinness led Niagara with 13 points as the team took a 38-33 lead into halftime.
“We took a lot of positives from that game,” said McGuinness, who finished with 17 points. “We wish down the stretch we could have gotten more stops, but we know we can hang with the best teams in the conference now.”
Chanel Johnson finished the game as Niagara’s leading scorer with 19 points.
Faustin was pleased with her team’s ability to grab rebounds in the Niagara end.
“Winning the rebounding war is something we talk about all the time, so we’re excited that we can build on that,” she said. “We can build on that good defensive performance in the first half.”
Iona quickly wiped out Niagara’s five-point lead to open the second half with a layup by Adams followed by a 3-pointer from Powell. The Purple Eagles took the lead right back when McQuade responded with two consecutive treys.
Martinez was finally able to emerge and put up eight consecutive points to pull the teams even with 12:26 remaining in the second half. Niagara again responded and by 7:52 remaining, Victoria Rampado’s free throw had the Purple Eagles leading 64-57, their largest lead of the game.
Powell and Adams combined for five points to cut the lead to 64-62. Once again, Niagara had an answer thanks to a solid individual effort by Taylor McKay, who first hit on a jumper then stole the ball and drew a foul. She cashed in on both free throws to put Niagara ahead, 68-62.
“She was phenomenal tonight,” Faustin said of the sophomore guard. “She was great on Friday against Saint Peter’s as well. She’s really coming on as a sophomore. She’s never really played major minutes and now she’s starting to get her feel and her role, and really embrace that and do a good job.”
Then came Iona’s comeback, with the Gaels going on a 14-7 run over a three-minute span that put Niagara behind for good. The Purple Eagles kept committing fouls late in order to bring Iona to the foul line and hope for rebound opportunities off missed free throws, but the Gaels were hot at the line and sank 11 shots to pull away.
Next up for the Niagara women is a two-game road trip against MAAC rivals, beginning with Siena this Friday followed by Saint Peter’s on Sunday.