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Late steal bails out Niagara

Niagara coach Joe Mihalich warned his team about the nightmare it could live Saturday, probably never figuring it would come true.

No, Iona didn't sneak out of the Gallagher Center with its first victory in 18 tries this season. But Mihalich's team nearly endured one of the most heinous losses in recent Big 4 history.

Blowing almost all of a 15-point lead, Niagara pulled out an 81-80 victory over the nation's only winless Division I outfit when senior guard Lorenzo Miles stole a pass from Iona freshman DeShaune Griffin and dribbled out the final two seconds to deny the Gaels a shot at a potential streak-busting basket.

"Some people choose not to talk about the elephant in the room but we did," Mihalich said. "I don't know. Maybe we shouldn't have. We said Iona is going to beat somebody and the team they beat is going to be on the front page of USA Today. . . . Hopefully we learned a very valuable lesson inexpensively, because we were very fortunate to get away with a win."

That's for sure. Iona (0-18, 0-8 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) entered the game averaging just 57.1 points but collected 46 in the second half alone. The Gaels shot 52.5 percent and put up their best scoring output of the season by destroying NU's soft and undersized interior.

"If we won today, I would have been telling you I'd be going to Disney World," said Iona coach Jeff Ruland, whose team was coming off overtime losses to Fairfield and Canisius. "It's tough but . . . we're going to break through shortly and we'll have the last laugh sooner or later. It's a matter of time."

Iona got 50 points and 23 rebounds from its five freshmen, led by career highs from guard Mike Harris (17 points) and forward Alejo Rodriguez (14). Senior forward Anthony Bruin had a career-high 24, hitting 10 of 12 shots. Overall, the Gaels scored a whopping 48 points in the paint.

"[The Purple Eagles] want to out-score you but they're not going to bunker in and work up a sweat on the defensive end," cracked Ruland.

Niagara (10-10, 5-4) had been down this road once before this season, losing to Delaware on Dec. 28 in a tournament in Philadelphia when the Blue Hens were 0-9.

But things seemed fine Saturday as NU was up, 43-34, at halftime and 55-40 with 16 minutes left.

It was reasonable to think Iona's spirit would break, especially in the wake of Thursday's heartbreaking 72-65 OT loss to Canisius in the Koessler Center.

"We knew even when we were down 15 that we always had a chance," insisted Iona's Harris. "Everyone dug it out and played as hard as we could. No one thinks about our record. . . . We just keep our pride and go out every day as if it's a brand new day."

Clif Brown led Niagara with 27 points and 13 rebounds while Charron Fisher added 21 points. But the Purple Eagles made just two field goals in the final 11 1/2 minutes and were only 4 for 21 from three-point range in the game. They survived solely because of a 29-14 edge in made free throws.

A three-point play off a putback by Fisher with 1:32 left gave the Purple Eagles breathing room at 76-70 but NU couldn't put the game away at the stripe.

Brown made 1 of 2 with 29 seconds left and Milan Prodanovic's three-pointer with 23.4 seconds to go cut Iona's deficit to 80-78. Miles went 1 of 2 with 21.4 to go and Rodriguez's layup with 13.1 seconds on the clock made it 81-80.

Miles was fouled again with 12 seconds left and promptly clanked both shots. Iona rebounded and brought the ball up court with a chance to end its streak as the crowd of 1,807 held its breath.

Griffin, in the game only because Harris and Prodanovic had fouled out, picked up his dribble near the top of the arc and was hemmed in. He tried a pass to his left but Miles swooped in and easily picked it off, leaving several Iona players on their knees in front of the bench in frustration.

"I was just reading the passer's eyes," Miles said. "When he threw the ball, I just broke on it."

Brown had a different thought: "I just know I didn't want to be on the front page of USA Today."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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