It was a given that the Niagara women's basketball team would miss Eva Cunningham. Not only was she the program's all-time leading scorer but also the team's ultimate decision-maker on and off the floor.
But no one thought losing Cunningham would hurt this badly.
The Purple Eagles have struggled -- to put it kindly. Niagara is just 3-23 overall and a likely last-place finisher in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with a 2-16 mark. The regular season will mercifully come to an end Sunday with a 2 p.m. tipoff in the Gallagher Center against second-place rival Canisius.
All this after finishing last season 17-12 overall, 11-7 in the MAAC and missing the tournament title game by three points -- in a loss to eventual champion Canisius in the semifinals.
So after returning 12 players and four starters from a rather successful team, what imploded?
"For the rest of my life I'll never be able to say what happened this year," senior guard Danie Mosca said.
The question is just as frustrating to 12th-year head coach Bill Agronin.
"It's very perplexing to the staff and to the players," Agronin said. "We have the talent, we just can't figure out why we've been having such a hard time. We have not been able to pinpoint what's wrong. If we could pinpoint it, we could fix it. I will say this -- they work hard in practice and come to practice every day focused and ready, so it's not that. One thing I think it could be is confidence."
The missing ingredients are clear -- a lack of leadership and drain on confidence. Both were easily provided by Cunningham, but no one on Niagara has stepped up to fill those roles individually. A leadership-by-committee style has not worked, and team members seem to lack the confidence to pick up the rest of the team.
"I think it is confidence," Mosca said. "When the shots don't fall it affects us on the defensive end. We're looking for someone to pick us up, and some people have been hesitant to do that."
Niagara is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and averaging 53.8 points a game -- more than 10 points below its average last year. The Purple Eagles have capable scorers, but the missing element may be more psychological than physical. Cunningham was not just the go-to scorer who made last-second shots; she was the person the entire team looked to for a calming effect, advice and a shot of confidence.
"There's no doubt about that, and that we miss that, but by this time, someone should have stepped into that role," Agronin said.
Agronin has tried to mix it up to find a winning combination. He's used 18 starting lineups in 26 games, and 13 of the 15 players on the roster have started.
Not helping Niagara's cause was the loss of junior guard Shaunna Ambrose, who was out for eight games with a stress fracture in her right foot. She leads the team in scoring with 13.3 points, followed by junior Toni Smalley's 8.1 points.
Sophomore point guard Michelle Manfredi leads the team in assists (2.1) and rebounds (5.4) -- not a good sign for the team.
"We've been in most games this year, but there comes a point in the game where for a seven- or eight-minute period we lose our confidence," Agronin said. "An eight-point deficit becomes a 12- or 15-point deficit, and that's a tough mountain to climb and to get back. . . . The thing I do like is that they have stayed together as a team. Nobody has packed it in, quit or said, 'I can't do it.' "