By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — John Gallagher met Joe Mihalich 25 years ago, when he was a 10-year-old ball boy along for the ride with the LaSalle men's basketball team on a trip to Notre Dame.
He's been a fan ever since.
"Amazing guy," the Hartford coach said Wednesday night in the basement of the Gallagher Center. "Always been the same. An energy-giver, not an energy-taker.
Earlier in the evening, Gallagher had the bittersweet experience of watching his friend earn his 250th coaching victory at his own expense.
Pressure defense fueled Niagara's 75-59 win over Hartford and pushed Mihalich past his latest milestone.
Antoine Mason, who wrote "250" on the board in the locker room before the game, had 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals to lead the Purple Eagles (4-6) in their first home game since Nov. 18.
"We knew about it, we kept talking about it," Mason said. "We had to get it for him. He's a great coach."
Trailing 11-7 eight minutes into the game, Niagara used an aggressive, three-quarter court trap to storm back and build a big lead, forcing 10 turnovers that all lead to baskets while finishing the half on a 30-9 run.
"We took it personal this game and wanted to show that we can play defense," Mason said.
"That was our main goal, to run them off the line because they are a great 3-point shooting team, rebound and get out and run," said Ameen Tanksley, who filled the stat sheet with 16 points, 12 rebounds and three assists.
Hartford (5-5) came in shooting 37 percent from 3-point range and taking 41 percent of its field goals from beyond the arc. Struggling to get the ball across halfcourt on several possessions, the Hawks managed to shoot just 7 of 24 from long range against Niagara.
"Joe does a great job with his zone," Gallagher said. "We didn't do a good job, conceptually, attacking the zone."
On the other end, the Purple Eagles shot 50 percent from both inside and outside the arc and 70 percent from the foul line. But they did turn the ball over 22 times, of which most were self-inflicted.
"It's unacceptable," Mihalich said. "We're not good enough to do that."
Hartford used a 14-1 run to cut the lead down to 67-57 with 3:42 left to play, but a fallaway jumper from Mason ended the threat.
Malcolm Lemmons had a season-high 11 points, including an off-balance, off-the-glass 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer. Juan'ya Green added nine points and four assists. Freshman Tahjere McCall got his first start because of his perimeter defense and had four points, four assists and three steals. Marvin Jordan returned from a two-game injury absence to score six points. Devon White had six points, four rebounds and two blocks in his second game of the season.
The Purple Eagles will try to get Mihalich career win No. 251 when Sunday when the top team in Hartford's league, Vermont, visits the Gallagher Center.
After Wednesday's win, Mihalich called himself "a lucky guy."
"It means you've got good players, that's for sure," he said. "I say it all the time. I'm living the dream. I'm lucky to be here and lucky to coach these guys and the rest of the team."
In Gallagher's opinion, Niagara is lucky to have Mihalich.
"He's got to be considered one of the best coaches," Gallagher said. "He really knows how to get his guys to play hard. He does a phenomenal job recruiting. His plan is detailed. His guys know what they're doing.
"Put it in perspective. First, how many guys stay at one place 15 years? He's been offered five or six different jobs. We all know that. He loves the Niagara area. He turned down LaSalle, his alma mater. He grew up in Philadelphia, but he's from Niagara Falls. He's from Buffalo.
"... He's a great role model for young coaches like myself. For him to get 250, I know it was against me, but I'm proud to say he's a friend."