James Towns came off bench to score 20 points in Niagara's come-from-behind win at Iona. (Photo by The Buffalo News)
NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Hailed for its experience and upside before the year began, Niagara has scored one breakthrough after another in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season rife with unlikely success stories.
Friday night may have been the Purple Eagles' defining moment.
Playing without the services of MAAC Player of the Year contender Matt Scott for the final 29 minutes of regulation after the senior stat-stuffer left the game with an apparent right ankle injury, Niagara rebounded from a 12-point deficit, hustling down the stretch to outrebound and outlast Iona, defeating the Gaels inside the Hynes Athletics Center for the second straight season in an 85-84 thriller.
"Really, all I can say is it was a really courageous performance by our guys," head coach Chris Casey remarked as the Purple Eagles (18-10, 11-4 MAAC) won their fourth consecutive contest and remained in the conversation for a regular season MAAC title. "I say that not in a way where I'm surprised, because I'm really not. I've said this over and over about this group: This group is a team, and if you go back and you look at us throughout the season, there's been different guys at different times that have stepped up and made plays for us."
In that vein, James Towns was the latest to emerge as Niagara's savior, leading all scorers with 20 points off the bench in his second clutch performance of the season.
"We just had to pick him up," Towns said of stepping up in place of Scott on a night where he set a tone reminiscent of his 31-point outburst in the Purple Eagles' commanding win over Canisius on January 27. "Obviously it hurt us, but we stayed together, and that's the most important thing."
Indeed Niagara did, not once showing they were fazed by Iona (16-12, 10-6 MAAC) and their high-octane offense, which took its largest lead of the night at 49-37 inside the first minute of the second half. The visitors got to work on the boards in the final 20 minutes, beginning with Greg King's carom off an errant Kahlil Dukes three-pointer, a play that set the stage for a 10-2 Purple Eagle run. The Gaels would trade baskets with their opposition for the next few minutes thereafter, but Niagara responded with another 10-2 spurt, tying the game at 66 on a layup by Greg Kuakumensah with 9:24 remaining in regulation. Iona scored the next five points, but Niagara would not go away, ripping off seven in a row as Towns' three and layup on back-to-back possessions swung the pendulum the way of the Purple Eagles in the form of a 73-71 lead with 7:33 to play.
The Gaels fought back one more time, pulling ahead once again as E.J. Crawford's layup with 4:58 left on the clock gave the hosts a 79-78 lead. However, it was the last advantage Iona would enjoy, as Niagara regained the edge on a dunk by King eight seconds later, and held on through a frantic final minute as the Gaels attempted in vain to extend the game.
"In the second half, we came out flat," Roland Griffin lamented. "Offensive rebounds were a big problem, and they made a run. We've got to play better to get the win."
"We keep making mental mistakes," a blunt Tim Cluess elaborated. "Credit the other team. They made plays and we didn't. We had opportunities. We turned it over, we missed a two-footer, we missed foul shots. You've got to make plays if you want to win. We've been shooting the ball poorly for quite a while."
While the loss for Iona eliminates them from a top-two seed in next month's MAAC Tournament and forces the Gaels to essentially win each of their remaining games in order to achieve a ninth consecutive 20-win season, the mood in the Niagara locker room was one of confident jubilation, a feeling forged through its character and maturation.
"They're the measuring stick." Casey said of Iona and the significance of scoring a victory on the Gaels' home floor. "But in terms of what it says about our character, it says that we're a team, what I had said previously. We talk all the time about when we push a button, you've got to be ready to go and help us, because the most important thing is the team and getting a win. I'm not surprised by what we showed."