Strong interior play propels Purple Eagles to 86-69 win over St. Francis
By Jonah Bronstein Niagara Gazette
On a day dedicated to 24 hours of college basketball, the Niagara men's basketball team dedicated itself to playing 20 minutes of good defense, and that was enough to score a runaway win.
Niagara's scoring prowess is such that the points leader on one night can go 0-fer the next and the team tally will be barely affected.
The Purple Eagles' ability to win comes down to their ability to defend and rebound, a serious deficiency from the past few seasons that manifested itself in the season-opening loss at Oregon State.
In the first half of Tuesday night's home opener, the Purple Eagles were good enough in those areas to beat any team visiting the Gallagher Center. And though the second half was a different story, the early effort was good enough to propel the Purple Eagles to an 86-69 win over St. Francis in front of a crowd of 1,714.
In the first 20 minutes, Niagara didn't allow an offensive rebound and grabbed almost as many of their own misses (nine) as St. Francis did (11). They also held the Red Flash under 35 percent shooting and built a 45-24 lead at the break.
"We were locked in defensively," coach Joe Mihalich said. "To a man, everybody did a really good job."
The two standouts were sophomore center Joe Thomas and freshman forward T.J. Cline. Thomas had six points on 3 of 3 shooting and seven rebounds in the first half, while Cline, the son of Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, had 12 points on 5 of 5 shooting, four rebounds, and several hustle plays that quickly made him a crowd favorite.
"They gave us great energy in the first half, a lot of rebounds and a lot of intensity on defense," point guard Juan'ya Green said.
"Our fans were great," Cline said. "It was an electric environment. The starters got us on a good note and I just came in and tried to do what the game plan said."
Thomas finished with eight points and eight rebounds and Cline had 15 points and seven rebounds. That's more than double the production of what Niagara got from its post players a year ago.
"If our perimeter guys aren't hitting anything, we can go inside," Green said. "If they play like that through the year, I think we can be a good team."
"Very good," Green said. "Good enough to go to the MAAC championship, I hope."
In the second half, Niagara struggled to defend high ball screens and got out-rebounded on both backboards, but played well enough on offense to prevent St. Francis from getting back in the game.
Green had 15 of his 17 points in the second half and Antoine Mason, who had a game-high 25 points on 10 of 16 shooting, made several key baskets when St. Francis threatened to cut the lead under double digits.
Ameen Tanksley added 12 points and nine rebounds. Freshman Tahjere McCall had four points, Scooter Gillette had three and Malcolm Lemmons had two. Marvin Jordan, who led the Purple Eagles with 17 points in the opener, missed all seven of his attempts.
Stephon Whyatt led St. Francis (0-2), netting 19 of his 23 points in the second half.
The Purple Eagles will stay home to host the 2K Sports Classic this weekend. They meet Bucknell at 7 p.m. Friday and New Mexico state at 4 p.m. Sunday. Bucknell and New Mexico State will play eachother at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. Niagara fans will gather on the ground floor of the Gallagher Center 90 minutes prior to each of the Purple Eagles games and at halftime.