Thursday, March 2, 2017

Niagara aims to return to top form in tournament opener against Quinnipiac

Matt Scott and Niagara, who have taken fight to MAAC's top teams, hope to do so again in conference tournament, beginning Thursday against Quinnipiac. (Photo by The Buffalo News)

Had they swept Marist and Manhattan rather than having been swept, Niagara would be at least a .500 team in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play, and the Purple Eagles would be getting more attention for the remarkable job they have done in finally attempting to turn the corner for the first time since Joe Mihalich left Monteagle Ridge for Hofstra in 2013.

Record aside, Niagara remains a tough out and their body of work speaks for itself as the Purple Eagles enter the MAAC Tournament with the same objective they had during the regular season: Just get a little better with each passing day.

"We had some very good moments in the first half of the conference season," head coach Chris Casey recounted when addressing victories over the likes of Iona, Siena, and Saint Peter's, each of whom secured a first-round bye this weekend in Albany. "I think we struggled some in the second half of the conference season. We have to work to regain some confidence in what we can do."

It starts Thursday against Quinnipiac, a team that swept the Purple Eagles in the regular season and imposes a tall order for forward Dominic Robb to outmuscle Chaise Daniels and Abdulai Bundu in the paint to beat the Bobcats at their rebound-driven game. However, the more intriguing matchup takes place in the backcourt, where point guard Kahlil Dukes and third team all-MAAC selection Matt Scott will be tasked with stopping Quinnipiac's dynamic freshman duo of Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss, the former being the likely conference Rookie of the Year.

"I think you've got to a good job of limiting them," said Casey of the key to defending Dixon and Kiss. "I don't know that you're going to completely stop them. They both score the ball well and they score it multiple ways, but we have to do a good job of limiting them."

Should Niagara win, they would move on to face a Monmouth team they took to the wire at home in January in Friday's quarterfinal. With three wins against the MAAC's top four teams, the Purple Eagles definitely have the goods to stand toe-to-toe with the conference's heavyweights, and gaining another couple is first in their minds this week.

"We had a stretch here at the end where we played the top five teams in the league," said Casey. "We need to produce better against those five teams down the stretch. We need to gain more experience and depth so that we can win on a more consistent basis and have some more carryover from one year to the next year. I think we've shown ourselves to be competitive, the next step is to show ourselves to be able to win more often."

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