By JONAH BRONSTEIN
Niagara Gazette — The heart-stopping heroics finally stopped working for the Niagara Purple Eagles.
Erik Etherly caught a 75-foot inbounds pass from Anthony Winbush with 2.6 seconds on the clock, spun around and fed Julius Brooks for a buzzer-beating layup Saturday, allowing the Loyola Greyhounds to leave the Gallagher Center with an 89-87 double overtime win.
Niagara rallied back from a nine-point second half deficit, came back from being down eight to force the second overtime on Juan'ya Green 3-pointer with 6.2 seconds left, and tied the game with a pair of Malcolm Lemmons free throws before the Greyhounds final play.
But after winning a school-record 10 straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference games — five by four points or less — and pulling out the last two games in the closing seconds, the Purple Eagles found themselves on the other end of an exhilarating finish.
"We can't have games so close every single time," Niagara guard Antoine Mason said. "It's a wakeup call."
"We got what we deserved," coach Joe Mihalich said. "We didn't deserve to win."
Yet, with crosstown rival Canisius beating Iona on Saturday night, Niagara (14-9, 10-2) maintains its two game lead in the MAAC standings over Iona, Loyola and Canisius, who are all 8-4.
"We don't need help from anybody else to win the regular season championship," Mihalich said. "We need to play harder, we need to work harder, we need to play better. Everyone needs to improve. But if we do that, let's see what happens."
Mihalich accepted the blame for Niagara's defensive breakdown on the final play.
"It's a coaching mistake," he said. "We didn't practice it enough."
"We knew it was going to be a long pass," Juan'ya Green said. "We just got our switches messed up at the end."
"We didn't lose the game at the end," Mihalich said. "We lost the game in the first half. We didn't come out and set the tone that we've been setting."
Despite turning the ball over on six of its first 11 possessions, Niagara never trailed by more than five points early on and was down just 35-34 at halftime.
Loyola built a 50-41 lead by the 13-minute mark in the second half, and with Niagara's starting center Devon White picking up his fifth and disqualifying foul for arguing with the referees, it appeared the Greyhounds were going to run away with the victory.
Niagara then went on a 16-2 run, tying the game on a three-point play by Mason and going ahead on a fast-break layup by Marvin Jordan with 7:55 to play. Loyola's high-scorer, Robert Olson (23 points) fouled out during that stretch.
After Green's layup made it 66-64 with two minutes left, Niagara did not score again. The Greyhounds made sure Green could not get an open look in the final possessions, having seen him hit the winning 3-pointer to beat Iona on Friday.
"They weren't going to let Juan'ya do what he did the other night," Mihalich said.
But after spotting Loyola an eight-point lead in the first overtime, Niagara went on an 11-3 run that included 3-pointers from Mason and T.J. Cline, a tip-in from Malcolm Lemmons, and Green's pull-up 3 from the left wing to tie the game.
The second overtime featured six ties and two lead changes and neither team led by more than two points. Trailing by two with six seconds left, Mason couldn't connect with a double-teamed Green and instead lofted an inbounds pass to Lemmons, who drove in the paint and drew a reach-in foul on Loyola's Julius Brooks.
"What Malcolm did was incredible," Mihalich said. "He's been a little down, rightfully so. He's not playing as much as he used to play. To come out there and do that and make those two foul shots like that, that's what winners do. That's why I love this team."
Mason and Green each scored 23 points to lead the Purple Eagles. Cline had 14 points and six rebounds off the bench. Ameen Tanksley had 12 points and eight rebounds. Green and Lemmons each had eight rebounds, as Niagara held a 51-40 advantage on the boards.
The Purple Eagles play at Rider on Thursday before hosting Canisius next Sunday.