By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Antoine Mason's importance to the Niagara Purple Eagles can no longer be questioned.
Since the sophomore guard sprained his ankle in a Feb. 2 game against Loyola, the Purple Eagles (14-11, 10-4) are mired in their first three-game losing streak of the season.
Though they still lead the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings by one game, it's clear the Purple Eagles won't finish in that spot without Mason returning to play a key role.
"Doggone it, he's our leading scorer," coach Joe Mihalich said after Sunday's home loss to Canisius. "He's physical and tough and when you need a basket, he finds a way to put it in the hole. You might even think, doggone it, he's in trouble, and then someway he makes that shot in the paint with people on him."
"They're pretty different," said Canisius guard Billy Baron, who is dealing with a sore ankle himself. "They don't have his slashing ability, which is big. "They obviously lean a lot on him with his point production and when they don't have that they look for other guys to step up."
Marvin Jordan has started in Mason's place. On Sunday, Jordan shot 0 for 7 from the field and 0 for 2 from the free throw line.
Mason, who has scored in double figures every game this season and is the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's second-leading scorer (18.9 ppg) is expected to return to the floor tonight when Niagara visits Marist. He has been practicing since Saturday and was last-minute scratch before the Canisius game.
"We thought he was going to give it a go but at the end of the day he felt like he'd be hurting the team if he played," Mihalich said. "We don't ever want a guy to play if he's hurt. We don't ever want a guy to play if he doesn't feel good about himself."
Niagara beat Marist 94-72 at home Jan. 3. The Purple Eagles never trailed in the game, led by as many as 30 points and pulled most of their starters with five minutes left to play.
But the Red Foxes (7-18, 4-10) are a different team of late, having beaten last year's regular season and tournament champions, Iona and Loyola, at home last week.
Marist's 6-foot-10 center Adam Kemp — whose grandfather, Robert Monroe, played at Kenmore High School in the 1930s — averaged 26 points on 71 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the two wins.
The Niagara women's basketball team will face first-place Marist in a 5 p.m. game that will be televised on ESPNU.
The Purple Eagles (12-11, 7-5 MAAC) have put together a three-game winning streak after stringing together wins over Rider (64-59), Loyola (58-47), and Saint Peter’s (67-55). Going back a bit further, they are winners of four of their last five games with a 62-49 win over Canisius coming before a 71-68 overtime loss to Loyola.
Niagara is looking for its first win over Marist (17-6, 12-0 MAAC) since the 2009-10 season. It has gotten close as two of the last three games have been decided in overtime and the other was a two-point game part-way through the second half.