Despite loss, Pierce excited for NU future

Photo courtesy Robert MaybergerNiagara junior Jai Moore attempt a shot over Fairfield's Casey Foley during the opening game of the MAAC Tournament on Thursday morning at the Times Union Center in Albany. The Purple Eagles' season ended with a 74-69 loss.

ALBANY — While the season ended on a sour note Thursday morning for the Niagara women’s basketball team, head coach Jada Pierce sees something bigger is building on Monteagle Ridge.

Pierce’s squad had a new look in its first season without 2017-18 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year Victoria Rampado, and as the dust settled, Pierce could see the foundation of her program settling in.

“It’s bigger than just this game today,” Pierce said. “It was a whole year of being around this group, and this incredible journey that we’ve been on together, learning every step of the way.”

Eighth-seeded Niagara fell to No. 9 Fairfield, 74-69, in the opening game of the MAAC Tournament at the Times Union Center in Albany.

Down 16 early in the second quarter following a sloppy defensive start, the Purple Eagles (12-19) rallied behind their depth scorers, with Adila Gathers (12), Maggie McIntyre (11) and Emerald Ekpiteta (10) leading the comeback.

Ekpiteta, a sophomore, had six points during an 18-11 third quarter that put the Purple Eagles back in it, and Gathers hit a layup to give them their first lead with 6:20 left in the fourth.

Junior guard Jai Moore, the MAAC’s top scorer in conference play, appeared primed to lead NU to the win, drawing foul and foul in the fourth. But she went just 2 of 7 from the stripe, allowing the Stags (11-19) to jump ahead. Fairfield’s Sam Kramer then went 6 of 6 from the charity stripe down the stretch to seal the deal.

“I am so extremely proud of our team,” Pierce said. “This was definitely a tough loss for us. … This was definitely not the way we envisioned (our seniors) being done, but today was definitely a hard-fought battle which is what we did all season long.”

Pierce inherited dominant bigs in Rampado and Sam Lapszynski when she took over the program four seasons ago, and she tailored a game plan to play through them.

This season’s Purple Eagles played a little more in their coach’s favored style, pushing the tempo and using their depth to wear down opponents.

It was evident Thursday, watching the Fairfield lead evaporate.

Moore scored 25 points to lead Niagara, which allowed 23 assists but forced 18 turnovers. She appears primed for a big senior season, returning along with 11 teammates.

“This feeling is definitely going to set with them because they know that we were capable of a little bit more,” Pierce said.

"This was just a preview of what is to come," said Gathers, an outgoing senior along with Kharysma Bryant. "This team has so much potential, and next year they’re going to hit this conference with a storm. There’s nothing that they can’t accomplish, and I’m just so proud of where we’ve come from. It’s been a long journey, but Niagara’s about to be back on the map."

Pierce knows it's possible, but it will begin with a big offseason.

“Everybody works hard, but there’s a championship level that we need to get at that we’re not at yet,” she said.