Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — Poor first halves have plagued the Niagara Purple Eagles almost all season.
Slow starts have put NU in holes it hasn’t been able to climb out of, wasting solid second-half performances in seven of its last eight games, all but one losses.
Wednesday night at the First Niagara Center, the Purple Eagles played well enough early to take advantage of one of their big second halves. Antoine Mason and Tahjere McCall combined for 35 points after the break to lead NU to an 83-72 win over the Davidson Wildcats and its first winning streak under new head coach Chris Casey.
“I’m very proud of our guys because we stayed strong,” Casey said. “We opened the game up in the first five minutes of the second half, and we were solid down the stretch and made free throws when we needed to.”
The Purple Eagles (3-8) trailed 34-31 after a first half in which neither team led by more than five. NU jumped out to a 10-5 lead with just 4:07 in thanks to Marvin Jordan and Rayvon Harris, who jumped out of the gates quick with five points apiece. The Wildcats (4-6) took a 34-29 lead with 1:09 left, but Ramone Snowden hit two free throws to cap off the half.
Jordan led the Purple Eagles in the opening half, scoring nine points. Snowden added eight, while Harris finished with seven.
Jordan hit a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second, and McCall added a 2-point jumper to give NU the lead for good.
McCall scored each of his 16 points in the second half and made perhaps the play of the night with 7:16 left. Davidson had trimmed the NU lead to 58-53 when Marcus Ware missed a mid-range jumper. McCall cut into the lane, elevated and managed to tip in the rebound despite being fouled. He nailed the free throw to give NU a bit of much-needed breathing room.
The sophomore guard iced the game with 19.9 second left. Niagara led 79-70 when Jordan corralled a rebound and found McCall sneaking out in transition. Jordan sailed a pass down the court, and McCall pushed through a foul to finish a layup. He hit the free throw to all but close out the game.
Mason, who came in leading the nation in scoring, saw his per-game average drop to 29.4 after finishing with 21. He entered the second half with only two and struggled from the field, but went 12 for 15 from the free throw line to help the Purple Eagles close the game. He still leads the nation’s second-leading scorer, Oregon State’s Roberto Nelson, by 4 points per game.
NU shot 48 percent from the field and 40 percent on triples, hitting six of just 15 attempts. Davidson fared much worse, finishing 36.1 percent overall and 20 percent on 3-pointers, hitting the same amount as Niagara despite shooting twice as many.
Niagara hosts Big 4 rival St. Bonaventure in another non-league game at 5 p.m. Dec. 21 in the Gallagher Center.
Follow Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on your local teams.