Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Purple Eagles have played dedicated defense in back-to-back games. Lo and behold, they are now on their first winning streak of the season.
"We're becoming defensive stalwarts," coach Joe Mihalich said with a wry smile after Sunday's 68-58 victory over Vermont at the Gallagher Center.
Niagara (5-6) used a constantly-switching mashup of zone and man to hold the Catamounts (6-4) to 39 percent shooting and force 19 turnovers that were converted into 19 points.
"Our defense was terrific," Mihalich said. "Our guys were locked in. We knew the toughest team on the floor was going to win the game. We were the toughest team. I'm really, really proud of our guys."
Having beaten Hartford 75-59 at home Wednesday, the Purple Eagles that once ranked 343rd nationally in points allowed have now held their opponent under 60 points in consecutive games for the first time since 2009. They have allowed 0.8 points per possession in these last two games, a defensive rating that would be among the national elite if it held up for an entire season.
The defensive surge began three games ago, when Devon White, the 6-8, 250-pound transfer from LaSalle who was unavailable early on because of offseason ankle surgery, joined the lineup and Niagara had the interior advantage against Buffalo's bigger frontline.
White had just four points, five rebounds (four offensive), four fouls (one flagrant) and a block in 23 minutes Sunday, but his presence in the paint has allowed his teammates to be more aggressive on the perimeter.
"He's a big presence, so we can get up on them with more confidence because we know we have help," Antoine Mason said.
"We knew that Devon would make us a better defensive team," Mihalich said. "He's a big person. He takes up space. He's got good instincts. He's active. As he gets in better shape, I think he'll foul less. He's still trying a little too hard, doing some things he should not be doing."