Late FTs lift NU in Battle of the Bridge

Paul Battson/contributorNiagara's Greg Kuakumensah throws down a dunk during the first half of Wednesday night's 69-66 Battle of the Bridge win over rival Canisius at the Gallagher Center.

LEWISTON — New coach, same result: Niagara men’s basketball beating Canisius.

The Purple Eagles overcame a strong second half by the Golden Griffins on Wednesday night at the Gallagher Center, helping Greg Paulus pick up a 69-66 win in his Battle of the Bridge debut.

Raheem Solomon gave NU the lead for good with 31 seconds left, hitting a pair of free throws. Shandon Brown stripped Canisius’ Malik Johnson on the next defensive possession, leading to Justin Roberts capping the scoring with a layup.

"What a basketball game," said Paulus, who grabbed the microphone to thank Niagara's fans after the win. "It's unbelievable to be a part of it. I'm honored to be a part of the Niagara program here and playing this historic rivalry.

"Canisius has a really good basketball team. (I'm) just really proud of my guys for making one extra play there at the end of the game to find a way to get it done."

The Griffs missed two open looks from 3 with a chance to tie, and Scott Hitchon was called for a travel while gathering an offensive rebound to turn over possession with four seconds left. Niagara inbounded and Canisius missed a foul, allowing NU to all but run out the clock.

Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon lamented some missed opportunities after his group shot just 38.3% from the floor.

"We missed way too many easy shots," he said. "We made too many mistakes. Credit to them."

The first 18 minutes were all Niagara, as the Purple Eagles opened a lead as big as 10. NU found plenty of success playing five-out against the Griffs’ man defense, spreading the floor and opening up driving lanes.

Defensively, Canisius couldn’t take advantage of the Purple Eagles’ lack of size, missing more open chances inside. Niagara, which entered as the second-worst rebounding team in the country, held a 16-10 edge in points in the paint and was plus-1 on the glass despite playing all but seven minutes without a true forward.

But Niagara went cold over the final 3:10, and Canisius scored the final eight points of the half in the last 1:24, capped by Johnson’s 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the NU lead to 34-32.

Jacco Fritz, a 6-foot-10 freshman from the Netherlands, took over for the Griffs in the second. He had 15 points and nine rebounds — five offensive — after break and finished with career highs in points (18) and boards (12).

"We just try to keep playing," he said. "Keep doing my things on offense and especially defense, keep working hard, get stops and you will get back (into the game)."

After grabbing just two offensive rebounds in the first half, Canisius came down with 14 in the second. It dominated the shorthanded Purple Eagles, whose only true forward, Greg Kuakumensah, played just under 20 minutes before fouling out.

Canisius held a ridiculous 28-10 advantage on the glass in the second, many of which led to its 21-11 advantage in free throw attempts. But it also turned the ball over 12 times for the game compared to just six for Niagara.

"They're a very good offensive rebounding team," Paulus said. "... They found a way with their size and their strength, and our guys continued to battle and battle and and just came up with that one at the end."

Meanwhile, the Purple Eagles went a cool 7 of 16 (43.8%) on 3-point tries, where Canisius finished just 4 of 24 (16.7%).

Marcus Hammond finished with team highs of 17 points and eight rebounds for the Purple Eagles. He scored 10 straight points over a four-and-a-half minute stretch late in the second half and grabbed three of NU's final four rebounds, all on the defensive end.

"Every game after we watch film I see myself standing around a lot," he said. "I see times where I could just go in and get the rebound, so that's what (I did) tonight)."

James Towns added 16 points off the bench, shooting 50% without committing a turnover. Kuakumensah was key in his limited minutes, scoring 12 points to go with five boards. Niagara was plus-15 while he was on the court.

Niagara improves to 107-81 all-time against its rival, and 6-1 in the last seven meetings.

"It's a big rivalry, so when these games come up, it gets a star on our calendar and we prepare for it pretty well every time," said Towns, a key player in each of those last seven meetings.

Niagara returns to action Sunday when it hosts Saint Peter's.

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