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NU ROUTS AN OLD NEMESIS

Niagara took no pity. Forget that St. John's might be at the lowest point in the history of a once-proud program. NU had years of frustration built up in the series with its Vincentian sister school and it was time for some payback.

With a stunning first-half display, the Purple Eagles soared to a 31-point lead at intermission and cruised to a shockingly easy 102-81 victory Saturday night in the Gallagher Center.

A sellout crowd of 2,400 roared its approval as Niagara plundered the Red Storm inside and out from the opening tap. The Purple Eagles (3-1) scored the game's first seven points and that was that.

NU had lost five straight in the series, was just 3-28 in the last 31 meetings and had not beaten St. John's on campus since 1970.

Five players scored in double figures as the Purple Eagles hit 36 of 65 from the field and 24 of 32 at the line. Senior forward Juan Mendez led Niagara with 34 points, three off his career high. Sophomore forward J.R. Duffey added a career-high 16 while point guard Alvin Cruz chipped in 14 points and 10 assists. Guard Lorenzo Miles had 10 points while forward James Mathis came off the bench for 10 points and eight rebounds.

"This was for our seniors," said NU coach Joe Mihalich, who had been 0-7 against Big East schools. "These three guys (Mendez, Cruz and guard David Brooks) are special to us. That was their last chance to play St. John's so I'm really, really happy for them."

Mendez scored 21 points as Niagara hit 23 of 35 from the field to build a 61-30 cushion at intermission. St. John's regained some self-respect with a 12-2 run to open the second half but all that did was cut the deficit to 21. It got no smaller than 17.

"It's nice to beat St. John's finally," Mendez said. "This win is for coach (Mihalich), for the others who were here the last four years. For (former players) James Reaves, Tremmell Darden, Rhossi Carron, Daryl Greene. All those guys who didn't have the opportunity to beat these guys. They were the ones who started us on the right track."

It was the most points Niagara has ever scored against St. John's. And it was the first time the Storm had been scorched for 100 in a non-league game since a 105-80 loss at Indiana on Dec. 23, 1992.

"They're an extremely good basketball team," first-year St. John's coach Norm Roberts said of the Purple Eagles. "That is exactly what happens when you have senior leadership like they have."

The opening 20 minutes showed why most national observers are certain St. John's (1-2) has little chance for any success this year in the rugged Big East.

The Purple Eagles used first-half runs of 9-0, 8-0, 10-2 and 15-3 to turn the game into a blowout. Niagara had a 26-11 lead after nine minutes and it hit 20 (37-17) on a Duffey free throw with 7:48 to play.

Mendez bulled inside for a layup with 3:49 left to make it a 25-point game (50-25) and the place was buzzing when Duffey's three-pointer from the right with 2:18 to go made it 57-27. NU was 5 for 10 from long range in the half.

The biggest lead came on a Mendez dunk off a Cruz feed that put Niagara up by 34 (61-27), with 1:02 left.

"It was very shocking," said St. John's guard Daryll Hill (team-high 21 points).

Mendez had just four points in the first eight minutes but immediately took advantage when 6-foot-9 St. John's sophomore Lamont Hamilton got his third foul. With Hamilton out, Mendez powered to the basket at will.

"Our assistant coaches said (Hamilton) gets off his feet," Mendez said. "They said I could work ball fakes and power through him and it worked. When the guy went out, I had a pretty good first half."

The loss added to the indignity of one of the worst weeks ever for St. John's. The Red Storm lost to lowly St. Francis (N.Y.) for the first time since 1956 on Tuesday night, spoiling the renaming of famed Alumni Hall in honor of legendary former coach Lou Carnesecca. On Friday, the school announced two years of self-imposed penalties, including a postseason ban, for cash payments made by a former staff member to ex-player Abe Keita. Then came Saturday.

None of that mattered to Niagara, which has endured too many hard times against St. John's over the years.

"We were 0 for 3 since I've been here," Cruz said. "I wanted to get that one before I leave and we finally got it. This year is all about making history like (Mihalich) always tells us. We started (Saturday)."
e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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