Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — After Niagara head coach Chris Casey watched University at Buffalo forward Javon McCrea pour in 31 points and grab 14 rebounds Wednesday night, he said he'll happily attend the senior's graduation in the Spring.
But despite McCrea's herculean effort, Niagara out-rebounded the Bulls (44-41), won the battle in the paint (26-20) and standout guard Antoine Mason scored a team-high 25 points to lead the Purple Eagles to a 92-81 win over UB at 'Taps' Gallagher Center.
The win for the Purple Eagles snapped a four-game losing streak against Buffalo and was the first win at home since 2007.
"Both teams played extremely hard," Casey said. "If you're a fan of college basketball you really enjoyed that game. It was a hard fought game. We made one or two more plays and came out on the positive end."
The Purple Eagles dominated in the first half. Sporting a 28-17 advantage on the boards, Niagara took a 47-33 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
NU's attacking style gave the Bulls fits on the inside. The Purps converted a number of easy baskets around the rim, which is uncharacteristic of the bigger UB team.
"We didn't get off to a great start," said UB head coach Bobby Hurley. "In the first half we came out of the gate losing the effort game and gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, put backs and really dug a hole for ourself."
The second half was a different story. An inspired Buffalo team erupted early on, ripping off a 9-1 run to open the half to cut a 14-point halftime lead down to six points at 48-42. The teams went back and forth the next few minutes and NU's advantage fluctuated between six and 12 points.
Then the Bulls seemed to make another charge at about the midway point of the final half, cutting the lead to five on a pair of Jarod Oldham free throws.
But Mason, who made a big play on both ends whenever his team needed it all during the game, buried a 3-pointer right in front of the Niagara bench, which sent the Gallagher Center into a craze as he was fouled on the play as well.
Casey said the Purple Eagles see the result of Mason's hard work in practice every day, and hasn't been surprised at all with his success early on this season.
"He scores the ball different ways and he leads by example every day. He's increasingly becoming a better defender and every time we need a big play on either end of the floor — he made a couple good stops today and a couple good close outs," Casey said "We need him and we need his leadership. The thing I love about him is if we had won that game tonight and he scored eight points, he still would have been happy."
NU wasn't out of the woods at that point as McCrea scored 11 of his 31 in the final 10 minutes.
With Niagara up 66-57 a few minutes after the Mason triple, McCrea scored off of a spin move in the painted area to bring the Bulls back within six.
Casey was impressed with McCrea in person, but thought his players executed the game plan and made it difficult for him on both ends.
"In the first half I thought we doubled him pretty effectively. And then — he's a smart player — what he started to do if you watch him is, as soon as the ball came in he spun quick and attacked before you can double him," Casey said. "Then he is inside your defender and if he misses a shot — and he missed a couple — he's inside for the offensive rebound. He's an outstanding player. I don't think you try and stop him, you try and limit him."
The Bulls trailed by six with 3:35 left when McCrea hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to four, but NU scored the next four and closed out the game, going 7 of 8 from the line down the stretch.
Mason said he loved the way his team competed, and the win, the first over UB since he's been at NU, felt good.
"It's bragging rights. We haven't beaten them since I've been here," he said. "We played like dogs. Everybody played hard and everybody wanted to win."
NU is back in game action on November 21 against USC Upstate at 5 p.m in Kent, Ohio. The Bulls play West Va. Wesleyan Saturday in their home opener at 3 p.m.