Hammond beats buzzer, lifts Niagara over Rider

EJ Johnson/contributorNiagara sophomore Marcus Hammond fades after launching the game-winning shot just ahead of the final buzzer Friday night in a 70-68 win over Rider at the Gallagher Center. 

LEWISTON — Marcus Hammond can cross "buzzer-beater" off his bucket list.

The Niagara sophomore drilled about as long a 2-pointer as there is as time ticked off the clock Friday night at the Gallagher Center, lifting his team over visiting Rider, 70-68.

With 1.2 seconds left in regulation, Hammond cut away from his defender, received the inbounds pass, turned and released a high arcing shot while fading into his own bench. It barely glanced the back rim as it fell through, giving the Purple Eagles a second straight win over a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite.

"It felt great," said Hammond, much more timid in an interview than on the court.

Following a grinding first half, Niagara (5-11, 3-2 MAAC) used a 13-2 run early in the second half to open up an eight-point lead. Rider (9-7, 3-3) chipped away for most of the remainder of the second, eventually taking a 66-63 lead on a pair of post makes by big man Tyere Marshall.

NU junior Justin Roberts, who inbounded the ball on Hammond's winner, drove for a layup, but Rider star Dimencio Vaughn answered with his own driving bucket. After a Niagara miss, Roberts ran square into a thunderous screen from Marshall, who was whistled for an offensive foul.

Greg Paulus allowed his Purple Eagles a chance to make something happen with an opportunity to tie, then called timeout with 12 seconds left in the shot clock. Roberts ran around a double screen from Raheem Solomon and Nicholas Kratholm and drained the tying 3-pointer from the left elbow with 27 seconds left.

"We do a lot of out-of-timeout plays for Justin coming off screens and he always knocks it down, so I had no worries about that shot," Hammond said.

Rider pushed the pace down the floor, and Roberts ended up one-on-one with lead guard Stevie Jordan. Jordan drove into Roberts' chest, and the blow forced his attempt to fall short.

"When he came down the court, we knew that he was gonna try to go for an iso because everybody kind of spread out," Roberts said. "So I knew that hew was gonna try to create for himself, so I just made sure I kept him in front of me." 

Solomon gathered the rebound and was fouled running up the court. Rider elected to call a timeout, allowing Paulus to go over the details before the final shot.

"We had two plays called depending on how the defense was going to cover us and guard us," Paulus said. "Justin made a great read, Marcus made a great read, going with the second play, and it worked out in our favor."

The coach, obviously, was pleased with the late execution.

"I think the really good step for our for our team was the fact that we made (the tying) shot and then we went right back down the floor and got a defensive stop," he said.

Niagara trailed 32-28 at half, and it would've been more if not for a Nick MacDonald 3 at that buzzer.

It caught fire offensively in the second, shooting 53.8% from deep and posting 13 assists to just one turnover. Overall, NU had 19 assists and six turnovers. Rider had 21 and 11.

Through Paulus' first five MAAC games, the Purple Eagles are tied for third in the standings and have hit a scorching 44.1% of their 3-point tries. They're second in the conference in 3-point makes.

Hammond continued his strong play after dropping a combined 56 points on Quinnipiac and Iona last weekend, posting 15 points and seven assists. Roberts led Niagara with 16 points, while Solomon chipped in 13. The trio combined to go 10 of 16 from deep.

"The guys are working hard, but (they're also) taking the right shots," Paulus said. "... When we're sharing the ball like that, playing inside-out and taking the right shots, we feel that we got some guys that can make some shots."

In two straight games, Niagara has knocked off the top two teams in the MAAC preseason coaches poll, Iona and Rider.

Next up is Siena (7-8, 3-3), which boasts preseason player of the year Jalen Pickett. The Saints, who fell to Canisius on Friday night, visit the Gallagher Center at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Another win, and it might be time to stop thinking of Niagara as rebuilding.

"The big thing for us is not letting that result take away from our commitment to getting better," Paulus said. "So, whatever it might be, we want to prepare, we want to continue to get better and grow.

"There's a lot of basketball left in the season, so for us it's 'How can we continue to grow individually?' and 'How can we continue to develop as a team? And with that growth mindset, if we can continue to do that, then that will hopefully allow us to keep taking steps forward."

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