LEWISTON — Greg Paulus and the Niagara Purple Eagles passed their first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference test Friday night.
Round 2 was just a little bit tougher.
Niagara fell to a strong Manhattan team Sunday, 67-62, at the Gallagher Center. The Jaspers' size, coupled with Steve Masiello's full-court press, was just a little too much for this relatively-new Niagara team, at least early on.
Manhattan (6-5, 2-0), which was picked fifth in the MAAC in the preseason coaches poll, built a lead as big as 14 points in the first half. The Purple Eagles were outrebounded by seven in the first, and shot just 30% against a defense anchored by 2018 MAAC Defensive Player of the Year Pauly Paulicap.
Still, Greg Kuakuemnsah hit a pair of free throws for the Purple Eagles (3-10, 1-1) before break, and eight straight points to start the second, including two 3-pointers from Marcus Hammond, amounted to a 10-0 run that cut the Manhattan lead to 35-31.
"I thought in the second half, it was much better," Paulus said. "... I really liked our ball movement. I thought we got the ball in positions to attack them and as a result of that, we were able to get some inside-out 3s."
Manhattan recovered, again pushing the lead to 14 with just over 10 minutes left. Once again, Niagara found a run, and a 12-0 spurt, during which the Jaspers went 0 for 2 with two turnovers, cut the lead to one, 59-58, with 5:10 left.
Paulicap responded with a pair of hook shots in the paint. Raheem Solomon's jumper with 3:20 left made it a one-possession game, and the score would remain 63-60 for over three minutes of game time as both teams went cold.
The two teams combined to miss their next eight field goal attempts, including a pair of Niagara 3s that would have tied the game. Manhattan's Samir Stewart and Tykei Greene each hit a pair of bonus free throws in the final 16 seconds to put the game away.
Niagara shot 48.3% after halftime, including 54.5% from 3. In two games at the Gallagher Center this weekend, they combined to shoot 42.9% from deep, way up from their season average of 32.4%.
I'm hoping we can continue to shoot the ball like that," Paulus said. "... I actually thought we missed a couple open looks as well that I love our guys taking and the conviction that they took them with, so that's something we want to continue to build off of."
The Purple Eagles finished with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio (10-8) for the eighth straight game. Greg Kuakumensah led the way with a double-double, posting team highs of 13 points and 10 rebounds while drawing five fouls and blocking a pair of shots.
After being out-rebounded by 15 Friday against Fairfield, Manhattan held just a 41-34 advantage on the glass. Niagara held even during its comeback attempt in the second half, with both teams grabbing 18 boards.
Greene, who Niagara recruited under Chris Casey, scored a game-high 21 points, hitting 3 of 5 from deep and 8 of 10 free throws. Paulicap added 16 points and seven rebounds.
NU hits the road this weekend, taking on Quinnipiac on Friday and Iona on Sunday.
Paulus received his first commitment as head coach on Sunday, and it came from close to home.
Rochester's Tah'Jae Hill, a senior point guard for Hilton, announced his commitment on Twitter.
Hill is listed between 6-foot-1 and 6-4 and is averaging 30.7 points per game for the Cadets, including a 49-point outburst in December. He had offers from UB, St. Bonaventure and Siena, and more recently, Cleveland State and Bryant. He also held a Division I football scholarship offer from New Hampshire.