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MENDEZ LEADS NU RALLY OVER AMERICAN

The chant from the students' section was a resounding, "Mendez owns you."

Well, at least he owned the last three minutes.

Juan Mendez took control for Niagara in crunch time, helping the Purple Eagles finally pull away from American, 78-71, in front of 2,169 Saturday night in the Gallagher Center.

Mendez scored 30 points with nine rebounds while grabbing a career-high six steals.

"I thought Juan put us on his back and carried us," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said.

It's the senior's versatility that makes him not only dangerous but endlessly frustrating to defend.

"He's a load," American coach Jeff Jones said. "He's got great hands and a great touch. He does a terrific job of positioning and his teammates, they know they want to win and they get the ball into his hands. . . . He did a good job of exploring the zone. To have a big guy that's that active and can make free throws is key."

In a tight game throughout, Niagara seemed to gain momentum when Lorenzo Miles hit a three-pointer with five seconds left on the shot clock to give the Purple Eagles a 67-63 lead with 6:26 left to play.

Mendez hit a free throw to make it 68-63. The teams traded misses and turnovers until Mendez had another two-shot foul. He missed both, then was called for the offensive foul.

But before American could capitalize on any potential momentum shift, Mendez came back with a steal at half court, leading a fast break and feeding Alvin Cruz for a layup and a 70-63 lead with 3:13 left. Mendez added a basket, a pair of free throws and got a key defensive rebound to help Niagara put the game away.

Mendez was able to score from any point on the floor. When American's zone took away the middle of the lane, Mendez created shots off rebounds, turnaround jumpers and one three-pointer.

"In practice, I go inside-outside, it doesn't matter," Mendez said. "I have to do different things this year because there's not a James Reaves down low. Now there's Lorenzo Miles who can hit huge shots for us. I just try to spread the floor. Teams will come at me and I just have to exploit my abilities."

As for those steals?

"Well, it's a plus when I get them," a smiling Mendez said.

So the big man may not be leading the way in steals, but it was the defense in the final five minutes of the ballgame that Mihalich pointed to as the reason why Niagara was able to close out the win.

"I told the guys with about four minutes to go, it was the same situation as the other night when we were up four or six points and we needed to finish it off," Mihalich said of Niagara's opening loss at Providence in which the team blew a late second half lead.

"I thought the difference was good defense and we took care of the ball. . . . I thought our defense was efficient."

Particularly efficient was Miles' defense on American's Andre Ingram. Miles held the Patriot League's Preseason Player of the Year and the league's Rookie of the Year last season to nine points with four turnovers.

"Last year I had to chase Alvin around all practice, so I was used to it," Miles said. "I was just ready. I was determined I wasn't going to let him kill us."

Miles finished with 11 points, three assists and no turnovers. David Brooks scored 18 points, Cruz added 13 with four assists.

The win put Niagara at 1-1 and 5-2 in home openers under Mihalich.

Niagara returns to action at 7 p.m. Monday, when it hosts Central Connecticut State.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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