By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Purple Eagles are flying high on their way home from the season's longest road trip.
Playing for the third time in six days in a third different city Sunday, the Purple Eagles pulled out a hard-fought, 67-64 win over Fairfield in Bridgeport, Conn.
In sweeping the season series with Fairfield for the first time in four years, Niagara (9-8, 5-1 MAAC) is off to its best conference start in five seasons and remains in a first-place tie with Iona atop the MAAC standings.
Winners of five straight conference games — three of which came on the road — the Purple Eagles are playing up to the standards set by some of coach Joe Mihalich's best teams over the last 15 years.
"Oh yeah," Mihalich said Sunday. "Who knows what the season is going to turn in to, but there is an awful good feeling on the bus right now. I'd by lying if I told you I remembered the first six games of every single season, but with the teams we've played, four road games, this has to be one of our best starts."
Antoine Mason had a game-high 17 points, including two free throws with 1 second remaining, but the star of the game, Mihalich said, was freshman forward T.J. Cline, who had 12 points and four rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench, and scored a putback basket that gave Niagara three-point lead in the final minute.
"It's like a book I read in college, A Sense of Where You Are, by Bill Bradley," Mihalich said. "T.J. has an incredible sense of where he is on the court. It's kind of a gift. It's not something you can teach or coach, he's just a pure basketball player."
Fairfield had four chances to tie the game in the final minute but couldn't convert. Desmond Wade and Justin Jenkins each missed 3-point attempts but the Stags, who held a 45-27 rebounding edge in the game, was able to come up with the offensive board both times. Wade then drew a foul on Mason while shooting a 3, but made just two of his foul shots. After Mason's free throws, Wade missed a halfcourt heave at the buzzer.
“We made some tough baskets and we held off just enough to stop them,” Mihalich said. “A key factor in the game was they are a terrific defensive team and we only committed five turnovers; we’re really proud of that.”
On the other end of the floor, Niagara forced 16 turnovers that were converted into 20 points and held Fairfield under 39 percent from the field.
A week after he scored 31 points and willed the Purple Eagles to a victory at the Gallagher Center, Juan'ya Green was held to a career-low five points by a Stags defense that was determined not to let him or Mason beat them.
"If you would've told me before the game that Juan'ya and Antoine were going to shoot 4 for 22 between the two of them, I'd say we wouldn't have a chance," Mihalich said.
“Our team had an attitude today and we competed like crazy. We had a confidence and competitive nature about ourselves. We dealt with some adversity, but at the end of the day, winners win and our kids figured out how to win.”
Niagara plays next at home Thursday against Siena.