ALBANY, NY -- In the middle of the first half, league-leading Monmouth was tied with Niagara and while being beaten down on the glass, King Rice called a timeout, and he didn't like what he was seeing.
"We play fast, they're supposed to pull threes early," the Hawks' head coach said after the game. "I looked up and it was 12 minutes in, and we only took three threes. They knew they didn't look like themselves."
On the other side, Niagara didn't look like a team that won only nine regular season games. There was senior Maurice Taylor, attacking the glass. There was sophomore Dominic Robb, carving out space against the Monmouth Hawks interior. But then, reality - and fantasy - both hit. The Monmouth attack found its footing from outside the arc. The fantasy part is the player who took the lead.
Louie Pillari, who logged three scoreless minutes in the season finale against Iona, dropped 14 points on the Purple Eagles. He started with a three to break the last tie the two teams had with just under six minutes to go in the first half. Monmouth closed down the offensive rebounding parade, and from there, Niagara's offensive difficulties and Monmouth's polish resulted in a 17-point halftime lead. The regular season MAAC champions would lead by as much as 25 on their way to the 84-59 win.
The Hawks had four in double figures, led by Pillari off the bench with 16, while Justin Robinson added 14, center Chris Brady added 13 and Austin Tilghman added 10.
Pillari was humble after the game.
"I've got to thank my teammates for finding me when I am open," he said.
But Rice was having none of that.
"Louie is a dynamic scorer," he said. "You guys are going to see a lot of him in the future. That was awesome what he did in the first half."
Niagara's game effort on the offensive glass earned them 25 more shots (84 shot attempts to 59 shot attempts), but Monmouth scored 25 more points (84 points to 59 points, coincidence?). The Hawks scored 1.11 points per possession while the Purple Eagles were held to 0.77 points/ possession. Niagara grabbed nearly 40 percent of their misses, but shot 21-for-63 inside the arc and just 3-of-21 from deep.
"My team, I thought on the defensive end that they were tremendous," Rice said.
But the game came with serious concerns, as star guard Micah Seaborn; the team's second-leading scorer at 13 points per game, went down with an apparent knee injury early in the second half.
"He's been playing with a torn meniscus since the second Rider game," Rice said, noting that he has managed his practice and playing time to navigate the injury. "I think he just re-aggravated it. We hope he will be back and ready on Sunday."
For Monmouth's NCAA Tournament hopes and success, Seaborn's presence is huge.
"If he can move," Rice said, "it's going to be hard to keep him off the floor."
For Niagara, the season is over. Despite only a single game improvement in conference and a three-game improvement overall in his fourth year, Chris Casey is finally seeing progress.
"I think we have made progress," he said of his team's developing core. "We were finally able to have some [player] retention back. I think there has been progress, there needs to be a lot more progress. We have to get carry over from year to year."
Sophomore forward Dominic Robb agreed.
"I think that if we stick together we can consistently beat teams," he said. "We're going in the right direction, I really think so."