Niagara Gazette — COLLEGE PARK, MD – As the young core of his team develops, Niagara coach Joe Mihalich wants them to remember what happened during Tuesday night’s National Invitational Tournament opener at Maryland.
The seventh-seeded Purple Eagles played even with the Atlantic Coast Conference Terrapins for 20 minutes before a disastrous second half stretch led to a 21-3 Maryland run and an 86-70 Niagara loss at the Comcast Center.
“I said to them in the locker room, ‘I want you to regret tonight, I really do. I want you to be disappointed. I think you will wake up and think, 'Doggone it we had a chance to beat Maryland,' whether it’s tomorrow or ten years from now,' " Mihalich said.
“But that being said, I also told them how proud we are of them, what a great, great year we had,” he added. “This team wasn’t supposed to win the (MAAC regular season) championship and we did. This team wasn’t supposed to be in the NIT and we’re in the NIT, so I’m really, really proud of this team.”
Niagara finishes 19-14 while second-seeded Maryland (23-12) will play either No. 3 Denver or No. 6 Ohio on Thursday night at Comcast.
Antoine Mason led Niagara (19-14) with 24 points and fellow sophomore Ameen Tanksley added 18.
“We can’t just wash this away. We’ve got to remember the feeling, that it hurts,” Mason said.
Playing Maryland for only the second time ever and first since losing to them in the 1972 NIT title game (100-69), Niagara led by as many as six points in the first half.
The teams were tied at 35 at halftime, but Niagara missed its first nine shots of the second half as Maryland scored 12 straight to take a 47-36 lead. After Mason scored, Logan Aronhalt’s 3-pointer started a 9-0 run as the Terrapins pushed the lead to 56-38.
Maryland’s full-court pressure took its toll as the Purple Eagles turned the ball over five times in the first seven minutes of the second half after totaling five the entire first half.
“Everybody talks about being tough on defense, you’ve gotta be tough on offense too and I thought we were soft,” Mihalich said of the second half. “We didn’t turn the ball over much this year… It was very disappointing to not handle that pressure well. We did a great job with it all year long.”
Niagara’s ultimately missed 15 of their first 16 second half shots.
“It was a cold streak at the wrong time,” Mason said. “We were rushing a lot of shots too. We should have slowed it down and run something, but it’s a learning experience.”
Faust’s baseline drive and dunk gave the Terrapins their biggest lead, 68-46. He paced five Maryland players in double figures with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Aronhalt and Seth Allen also finished with 15 points.
Niagara shot just 35.4 percent for the game, while Maryland shot 52.5 percent. The Terrapins outrebounded Niagara, 42-32, and blocked eight shots.
Tanksley’s 3-pointer gave Niagara a 20-15 lead with 11 minutes left in the half and Juan’ya Green’s basket in the lane gave Niagara its biggest lead, 29-23, with 5:30 left.
“I thought we had these guys back on their heels a little bit. I thought we had a chance in the first half,” Mihalich said. “It was like 5:02 to go, we’re up six and we miss a one and one and then it was real quick, like dunk, layup, dunk, tie game, and that was just what they needed to remind them how good they are.”
Maryland’s 7-1 center Alex Len then sparked the Maryland 10-0 run with a dunk, a blocked shot that led to a Faust fast-break dunk, and a layup that made it 33-29 Maryland.
“I thought Niagara was great in the first half,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “They made some tough shots and were much more physical than we were.”