By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Purple Eagles have played nearly 40 minutes of winning basketball this week.
The only problem is that it's been spread over two games.
While one good half was enough to beat St. Francis (Pa.) on Tuesday, it wasn't sufficient in Friday night's battle with Bucknell. After opening up a 12-point lead late in the first half, Niagara lost its way on both ends of the floor and wound up losing 88-71 in a 2K Sports Classic game in front of 1,814 fans at the Gallagher Center.
"We were bad the other night (but) I thought it was more psychological there," coach Joe Mihalich said. "We thought the game was over, we had it won and we didn't have to play hard. And that's not a good sign, either.
"Tonight, the going got tough and we didn't get tough. The good teams do that."
For the first 18 minutes Friday, Niagara outplayed a veteran team that went to the NIT last season and is receiving votes in the national polls following wins over Purdue and George Mason.
Marvin Jordan made a fastbreak floater at the 2:09 mark that put Niagara ahead 43-31. Jordan was whistled for a charging foul after releasing the shot that gave Bucknell a one-and-one at the other end, and that proved to be the turning point in the game. Prior to that, the Purple Eagles were shooting 50 percent from both inside and outside the arc, had 11 assists on 15 field goals and were out-rebounding a Bison team that had a 6-foot-11 pro prospect at center.
"In the first 18 minutes, I thought they were going to score 120 on us," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said.
But two Ryan Frazier free throws started a 7-0 Bucknell run to end the half, while the Purple Eagles stopped sharing the ball and began settling for contested 3s. The trend continued in the second half, as Bucknell scored the first nine points and Niagara's scoring drought extended another six minutes.
In the second half, Bucknell shot 64 percent from the floor, made all four of its 3-point attempts, scored 20 points in the paint and had a 23-13 rebounding advantage. Meanwhile, Niagara shot 30 percent, went 2 for 14 from long range and had only three assisted baskets.
"Quite frankly, I thought we got some sticky fingers there," Mihalich said. "I don't think the ball moved as well as it did in the first half."
Paulsen called Niagara the most talented offensive team the Bison have played all year. But Mihalich said one of Paulsen's assistants provided a more thorough analysis.
"One of their assistants said to one of my assistants, 'you guys are good on offense but you don't play any defense,'" Mihalich said. "In this world of sports, you either prove them right or you prove them wrong. And I guess we proved that guy right."
Mike Muscala overcame a slow start to post his strongest line of the season for Bucknell with 18 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks.
"He's a terrific player," Mihalich said. "We've got no one who can guard him. The only guy who can guard him (senior transfer Devin White) is still injured."
The Bisons had five other players in double figures, led by Bryson Johnson who had 15 points.
Antoine Mason led Niagara with 14 poitns. Juan'ya Green had 13 points and five assists and Ameen Tanksley had 12 points and a team-high six rebounds. Marvin Jordan hit two 3-pointers early but was scoreless after his bucket late in the first half. Mason, Green and Jordan combined to shoot 8 of 35.
Niagara returns to the floor at 4 p.m. Sunday against a New Mexico State team that plays Bucknell at 5:30 p.m. today at the Gallagher Center.