BY BRANDON SCHLAGER
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — Niagara University women’s basketball will need to wait until Sunday to attempt to lockup its first winning season since 2004-05.
Following a 51-36 loss to Western New York rival Canisius Friday night at the Gallagher Center, the Purple Eagles find themselves in fifth place in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference with a 9-8 record (14-14 overall) heading into their final game, a road contest against Manhatten.
It’s a far cry from where they were slated to begin the season, ranked second in the MAAC preseason polls, but there will still be some positives to take away as the Purple Eagles prepare for the postseason.
“I think we’re going to really try and take the positives out of this,” said assistant coach Corinne Jones, filling in for Kendra Faustin, who is on maternity leave. “We’re going to really focus on the fact that our defensive effort was great and we’re producing on that end of the floor.”
Niagara shot just 20.4 percent (11 of 54) from the floor in the game — their worst shooting percentage in a game this season — and were held under 40 points for the first time all year.
Niagara led for a small stretch in the first half after jumping out to a 13-9 lead. But the MAAC’s second-best shooting defense (36.5 percent) didn’t allow another point for the final 12:50 of the half and Canisius took off on a 17-0 run to take a 27-13 lead into the break.
Niagara wouldn’t get within seven points of Canisius (11-17, 8-9) in the second half.
“I thought we forced them to take shots they didn’t want to and our defense gave us that extra cushion going into the first half,” Canisius coach Terry Zeh said.
The Purple Eagles’ leading scorer, Lauren Gatto, was double-teamed all night by the stifling Golden Griffin defense and managed just nine points. Nine different players reached the scoresheet for Canisius, led by Ashley Wilkes, who also scored nine and had seven rebounds.
Niagara outrebounded the Griffs, 46-38, led by Sylvia Maxwell, with eight.
“I think we came out in the first half and, offensively, we didn’t have the flow we wanted to have,” Jones said. “I thought our defensive flow was great, especially in the second half. … It was a grind. We fought until the end. We played 40 minutes. We really rebounded well. Although our shots weren’t falling, there really were some positives to take away.”
For the first time in years, Friday’s rivalry game had seemed to carry very little meaning for either team.
Niagara entered the game with a shot to move up as far as third in the conference with a pair of weekend wins. But, with the loss, Niagara is all but locked into the fifth seed and a matchup against Rider in the first round of next weekend’s MAAC tournament while Canisius has its sights set on their game Sunday, when they’ll try to avoid the play-in round with a win.
The Golden Griffins did, however, avenge their loss to Niagara back on Jan. 27, when Niagara controlled the game from start to finish in a 62-49 win.
“It was a direct opposite (of the team’s first meeting),” Jones said. “Maybe Canisius came in with something to prove, I’m not sure. In terms of what we can control, we controlled our defense tonight. We did what we had to do on that end and sometimes the ball doesn’t fall in the hoop for you and I think that’s just what happened tonight. We’re going to get back into it.”Follow contributor Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.