Jared Jordan is leading the nation in assists, but Saturday in the Gallagher Center, the Marist guard turned into an intrepid scorer and nearly snatched a victory from Niagara University.
Jordan poured in a game-high 31 points, including 16 in the final 8:05, as the Red Foxes chopped at what was once a 20-point second-half lead. But Niagara held its poise down the stretch and made enough free throws to hold off Marist, 88-82, in front of 2,005.
Niagara, coming off a 79-72 victory over rival Canisius on Wednesday, has momentum heading into Monday's clash with Manhattan in the Gallagher Center. The Purple Eagles (10-13, 7-8 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) have won four of their last five heading into their home finale against the Jaspers (15-8, 11-4), who were stunned Saturday at Canisius, 84-75.
Jordan came in averaging 8.7 assists per game, slightly ahead of Northeastern's Jose Juan Barea (8.5) and Connecticut's Marcus Williams (7.9), but proved he can score with relative economy, making 11 of 15 from the field and 6 of 6 from the line.
But it wasn't enough to offset Niagara's Lorenzo Miles, Clif Brown and J.R. Duffey, who combined for 73 points. Point guard Stanley Hodge handed out eight assists and committed only three turnovers in 38 minutes. When Marist played grab-and-foul to gain possessions in the final minutes, the Purple Eagles made 16 of 20 free throws.
"As good as (Jordan) was, our team was fortunate to pull it together and be better than Marist," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "It's not a game for individuals. It's a game for teams, and our team, today, was better than them."
Still, Jordan was fun to watch.
The 6-foot-2 junior guard is damaging off dribble penetration and kick-outs for treys, so Niagara pressured Marist's wing players. That left the lane open and plenty of room for layups by Jordan, who was a perfect 8 of 8 inside the arc. A few days ago, Mihalich mentioned that Jordan was playing like Steve Nash.
"I wasn't lying, was I?" he said. "Every once in a while I'm right. He was unbelievable."
For most of the game, so was Niagara. Pressuring the wings was a new defensive wrinkle -- so was trapping Jordan on ball screens -- and Marist committed a season-high 18 turnovers, including seven by Jordan. Niagara led, 37-31, by halftime and expanded the lead to 57-37 with 12:30 left following a three-pointer by Brown. He finished with 26 points, his fourth consecutive game of 20 or more points.
"This game was lost in the first half," said Marist coach Matt Brady. "They came out with a lot more energy in the first half, and we turned it over way too much."
With 8:05 left, Miles, who scored a team-high 27 points, nailed an NBA-range trey and was close enough to the Niagara bench to have kissed Mihalich.
It gave the Purple Eagles a 68-49 lead. It was also their last field goal.
That's when Jordan and Will Whittington (17 points) started playing desperation basketball and pulled Marist from its chasm.
After Whittington drained a three with 4:08 left, the Niagara lead was down to 72-62. Jordan made it a two-possession game with 17 seconds left, 86-82, on a layup before Hodge answered with two free throws. Jordan finally missed a three-pointer with nine seconds remaining that would have trimmed it to three, and Niagara was able to breathe again.