By Jonah Bronstein
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."
The Purple Eagles' defensive strength Sunday allowed them to maintain control of a game in which they shot 7 of 28 from the floor and 1 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half.
Ahead 19-18 at the break, Niagara opened the second half with an 18-5 run and never led by fewer than seven points the rest of the way.
As has been the case in most all of this season's games, Mason was the efficient engine of Niagara's offense, scoring 19 of his 25 points in the second half. He shot 7 of 12 while the rest of the Purple Eagles went 12 for 28 and made 9 of 10 foul shots. He also had three of Niagara's six steals, and four assists, which tied Juan'ya Green for the team-high.
"Mason has been incredibly efficient," Mihalich said. "He shows us all that he can score in many different way, gets to the foul-line for a few, a 3 here and there and jumps shots. So there’s a lot of ways to get on the board and he did that today."
Green scored all of his 17 points in the second half, 10 in the final 8:37.
Marvin Jordan was Niagara's next-highest scorer with eight points, though he shot 1 for 7 from the field. Ameen Tanksley scored six points and T.J. Cline had 10 rebounds to go with his five points.
Niagara now travels to nationally-ranked Notre Dame on Friday then is off for two weeks before restarting Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play.
Meghan McGuinness hit two free throws with 9.7 seconds left in overtime to lift the Niagara women's team to a 66-63 home win over Colgate.
“This is one of those non-conference games that gives you great experience for the conference play,” coach Kendra Faustin said. “We haven’t been in this particular situation and we executed down the stretch and we got what we wanted.”
Lauren Gatto scored 18 points to lead Niagara (5-4), which plays at UB at 2 p.m. Friday.