As meltdowns go, this was one for the books.
Leading by 13 points and dominating all phases of the game, Niagara looked poised to pull off a season-opening upset over Providence College.
But poise was in short supply for the Purple Eagles in the final minutes of a painful 83-78 loss to the Friars on Tuesday night in the Dunkin' Donuts Center.
Not only did Niagara score just one field goal in the last eight minutes to blow the 13-point lead, it turned the ball over on three straight possessions in the final minute to allow Providence to complete its amazing comeback.
"We're heartbroken," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. "Mike Hermann, our director of athletics, kind of put it in perspective when he said you just don't get opportunities like this often. We had a Big East team beat on their floor, and we just didn't make the plays down the stretch. The game was right there for us."
Providence forward Ryan Gomes showed why he's an All-American, scoring 19 of his game-high 25 points in the second half and grabbing 19 rebounds. Guard Dwight Brewington added 19 points.
Forward Juan Mendez scored 22 points, 16 in the second half, and guard David Brooks added 20 to pace Niagara.
The Purple Eagles took the crowd of 6,289 out of the game with a 32-8 run to take a 68-58 lead nine minutes into the second half. The advantage grew to 74-61 on Mendez's putback with 8:15 remaining.
The Purple Eagles built that lead by attacking Providence with their fast-breaking offense. On the defensive end, Niagara got hands on several passes to create steals that led to easy baskets.
"For a period of time, it looked like we couldn't stop anyone," Providence coach Tim Welsh said. "They really pushed the ball down our throats for a period of time."
However, Niagara's offense was non-existent over the final eight minutes. Providence extended its defensive pressure, forcing the Purple Eagles to take tough shots with little time on the shot clock.
Meanwhile, Gomes began imposing his will around the basket. Ten of his points came during the Friars' 18-4 closing run, including a 5-foot jumper in the lane that gave his team the lead for good with 24 seconds left.
"(Gomes) just willed us to the win," Welsh said. "He wouldn't let us lose. He's got that look. He's going to be on a mission all year."
Gomes had a little help from Niagara in bringing Providence back.
With the Purple Eagles leading, 78-76, guard Lorenzo Miles threw the inbounds pass to point guard Alvin Cruz, but Cruz stumbled and the ball sailed out of bounds.
After a free throw by Tuukka Kotti made the score 78-77 with 33.2 seconds left, Brooks lost control of the ball and stepped out of bounds in front of the Providence bench with 31.1 seconds to go.
On Niagara's next possession following Gomes' go-ahead basket, Brooks' bounce pass went through James Mathis' legs and out of bounds. Two more free throws by Donnie McGrath pushed the Friars in front, 81-78, with 18 seconds left.
Niagara had a last chance to save itself, but Mendez rushed a three-point shot that was way off. Gerald Brown followed with two free throws to complete the Friars' escape.
"Their defense was good, but we didn't execute," Mihalich said. "I was disappointed with our pressure breakers. We didn't get the ball downcourt two or three times. I was embarrassed by that, I really am."
Providence led by as many as 10 points in the first half, but Niagara got back in it as Miles' three-pointer at the buzzer made the score 39-36 at the break.
The experimental three-point line (extended 9 inches to 20 feet, 6 inches) was no problem for Niagara, which made six from long range in the first half.
The good shooting opened the lane in the second half for Mendez, who scored at will under the hoop. He got plenty of assistance from Brooks and forwards J.R. Duffey and Mathis (12 points each).
Unfortunately for the Purple Eagles, all they have to show for their efforts is the realization that they can stand toe-to-toe with a Big East foe.
"We definitely won't be able to put it out of our mind," Brooks said. "This was a big chance we had. We had the game and we let it go. We know have to do from now on. We have to finish."