A young, injury-depleted, downtrodden Niagara basketball team had every reason in the world to get beat at St. Bonaventure Tuesday night.
No one bothered to tell that to the Purple Eagles, however.
Niagara played with poise and maturity well beyond its experience and stunned the Bonnies for a second time this season, 73-71.
A crowd of 3,329 at the Reilly Center saw Niagara sweep the season series for the first time in 28 years.
While this undoubtedly is a down year for the Bonnies (2-5), even the staunchest of Niagara fans could not have forecast the outcome.
Niagara entered the game 1-5 and had been buried three times last week, the latter two defeats inflicted by No. 7 Indiana and a very weak North Carolina-Wilmington team.
And, the Eagles were without three of their top eight players -- Mike Hartman and Scott Ramey (both injured) and Dwayne Daniel (out since the start of the season due to academics).
Nevertheless, the Eagles overcame their shortcomings by working for good shots and playing better defense than the Bonnies.
Niagara never trailed in the last 12 minutes. They were up by eight, 65-57, with 4:30 remaining when Bona made a charge.
A Michael Burnett rebound bucket with 1:32 left tied the game at 67.
Niagara called time out and then ran a perfect play, with Brian Clifford coming off a Darrin Bossert screen and hitting a 5-footer in the lane. Clifford was fouled and hit a free throw for a 70-67 lead with 1:13 left.
That was the play of the game. Bona got within two with three seconds left, and Burnett stole the ensuing inbounds pass 35 feet from the basket, but his desperation heave did not come close.
"You hear all the cliches that athletics builds character, but I think tonight it revealed character," said elated Niagara coach Jack Armstrong.
"We're decimated by injuries and problems right now. . . . our confidence level was at an all-time low since I've been here," Armstrong said of the team's two losses at the Indiana Classic. "Our kids walked off the plane on Sunday like they had been shot. I met with each of the players . . . and tried to get inside each one of their heads . . . to build them up again."
Just like they did all last season, the Eagles responded to adversity.
Clifford, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, was the star of the second half, leading Niagara back from a 35-29 deficit at intermission. He had 13 of his 16 points the last 20 minutes and grabbed 11 rebounds. The Eagles got 12 points apiece from Bossert, Tony Newsome and E-Lon-E McCracken.
Niagara shot 63 percent in the second half, 50 percent for the game, and held a 40-26 rebounding edge.
That, once again, showed the glaring weaknesses of the Bonnies -- defense and rebounding.
Bona got 21 from Kenrick Hamilton, 16 from Burnett and 10 from Quinn Smith.
Bona could be headed for an even worse season than last year, when it was 8-20.
Like Niagara, the Bonnies are young. But Bona has more talent, which made the loss that much harder to take.
"We'll be back," whispered a grim Bona coach Tom Chapman.
Armstrong, meanwhile, now has a 4-1 record in Little Three games. If he keeps this up, he might be in position to demand a lifetime contract.
"He's a player's coach," Bossert said. "We came home from Indiana and were down. He's always upbeat. . . . That's why we love to play for him."