By Paul Gotham
SPRINGFIELD, MA – Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason each finished in double figures pacing the number one seed Niagara Purple Eagles to a 74-62 triumph over the number nine seed Siena Saints in the quarter-finals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference at the MassMutual Center Saturday afternoon.
Green and Mason combined for 23 points after the break as Niagara outscored the Saints by 11.
Mason sparked a 10-0 run in the opening moments of the second stanza as Niagara took its first double-digit advantage of the game and held off the Saints from there.
“It was just the jitters in the first half,” Mason said of his team’s quick start in the second half. “It’s going to come to you. We just got to execute on defense. Defense is what started it.”
After Marvin Jordan nailed a three on the first possession of the half, Mason converted a pair of free throws. Niagara’s defense forced Siena timeout when the Saints could not inbound the ball. On the next play, Mason grabbed a loose ball and raced end-to-end for a layup.
“We found a way to win,” said Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich. “I don’t think it was the best game we played all year, but we did find a way to win. Guys made plays when they had to, and we’re just happy to be one of four teams to still be around tomorrow.”
The duo combined on a two-on-one with Mason getting the deuce stretching the margin to 10.A free throw later and Niagara led 42-31.
But the Purple Eagles could not shake the Saints.
OD Anosike scored back-to-back baskets. The senior power forward powered up a shot from the baseline for two. On the next play, Rob Poole fed Anosike with a lob for another deuce. Rakeem Brookins led Trenity Burdine in an advantage situation before Evan Hymes hit a pair of charity tosses trimming the deficit to two at 44-42
“The credit goes to them,” Mihalich said of Siena. “They had a good game plan. I always say that the toughest thing about playing in a situation like this is that that eight, nine team they had a game. They got the jitters out. They played last night. They got a win under their belt. We had to work throught that a little bit.”
Niagara responded. T.J. Cline and Ameen Tanksley ran a pick-and-pop on the right wing with Cline nailing a three. Malcolm Lemmons scored on a baseline drive, and Tankley drained a trey for a 53-45 advantage.
Hymes hit a three cutting the deficit to six with 2:39 remaining, and the Saints got a timeout.
Niagara didn’t flinch. Mason and Tanksley ran a pick-and-pop at the top of the key with Mason leading Tanksley who kept the ball moving to Green for what would be a decisive trifecta.
“Coach always say share the game,” Green commented. “We were just swinging the ball. We just found an open shot.”
Niagara had 14 assists on 23 field goals while committing seven turnovers.
“We got to be sharper tomorrow,” Mason said. “We got a lot of mistakes. We just got to execute tomorrow.”
Siena outscored Niagara 10-4 to close the first half trimming a seven-point advantage.
After Poole hit a pair of free throws, Siena extended a 1-2-2 defense into Niagara’s backcourt and created turnover. Evan Hymes made god on the opportunity using a ball screen for a pull-up three and a 28-26 Niagara advantage.
Malcolm Lemmons stretched the lead when he grabbed a loose ball and went end-to-end for a layup.
Trenity Burdine responded for Siena with a drive from the wing and a rebound of his own miss for a bucket.
Both teams struggled from the free throw line in the closing minutes before Hymes nailed another pull-up three with 2.2 left on the clock. Niagara led 32-31.
Anosike and Poole combined for six to cut into an early eight-point Niagara lead, but the Purple Eagles quick answered.
Tanksley took a charge on Burdine. Juan’ya hit one of two from the free throw line on the ensuing possession. On the next trip, Tanksley threw in a pair of charity tosses. Niagara extended the lead to 28-19 when Green threaded the needle through the Siena to Cline underneath for a bucket and a 28-19 bulge.
Mason went 10-of-10 from the free throw line and finished with a game high 21.
Green added 15. His six assists led all.
Hymes and Poole aced Siena with 14 each.
Anosike registered a double-double with 13 points and 10 boards.
Niagara’s bench outscored their counterparts 27-12. The Purple Eagles also forced 20 Siena turnovers converting those miscues into 32 points.
“It’s that time of the year,” Mihalich reflected. “As (former Temple head coach) John Chaney always said; ‘you win one, you buy one.’ You live to play another day…In this league the difference between one and eight as you just saw is just so marginal.”
Niagara’s Tahjere McCall played just five minutes. The freshman guard went down with an injury. He later returned to the court on crutches.
“It doesn’t look good when he is on crutches,” Mihalich explained. “We don’t know exactly what it is. We just got our fingers crossed.”
Niagara advances to play the Iona Gaels in the MAAC semi-finals Sunday at 2:30 pm.