Here is the essence of Niagara University basketball: to unremittingly attack, persistently rally and keep scoring until the other team finally goes away. In the season opener Friday night against Central Michigan, no one personified that more than Tyrone Lewis.
After the Chippewas whittled a 16-point lead to four, Lewis took over, scoring 11 of Niagara's next 14 points. Yet even with Lewis' outburst, the Purple Eagles had to hold on for dear life before finally downing the Chippewas, 79-73, in front of a sellout crowd of 2,400 at the Gallagher Center.
Lewis, the sophomore guard from Levittown, Pa., scored a career-high 26 points and pulled down seven rebounds for the Purple Eagles (1-0). Senior Charron Fisher added 22 points, including a three-pointer to start the game which was the 1,000th point of his career.
Niagara, which hung its 2007 NCAA Tournament banner from the rafters prior to the game, led, 62-46, with 9:18 left before Central Michigan (0-3) stormed back. Three-pointers that were off the mark early started falling for the Chippewas, who trailed, 77-73, with 27
seconds left. But Fisher hit two free throws with 14 seconds remaining to put the game away.
"It didn't seem like the seconds [were] ticking away fast enough," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich.
Mihalich added that he's still learning about the team's strengths and weaknesses, but one glance at the stat sheet indicates free throws (16 of 27) and turnovers (16) need to be addressed. And while Fisher, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year candidate, had six rebounds, he also had eight turnovers.
"His numbers are unbelievable, and he'd be the first one to say there's some things he didn't do out there that he's real proud of," Mihalich said. "He plays bad and plays good."
Fisher shook his head from side-to-side, disagreeing with his coach. Yet everyone was in agreement that Lewis is a special talent as the 2007 MAAC Tournament MVP picked up where he left off last season. Central Michigan closed within 48-44 with 12:09 left before Lewis' demoralizing solo show. He accounted for the next 14 Niagara points, scoring 11 and tossing an assist to Demetrius Williamson for a trey that expanded Niagara's lead to 62-46. Lewis also had a steal during the burst.
"Once he gets going, it's pretty much tough to stop him," Fisher said. "Once he's shooting it good, he can go past anybody. I just said, 'Thank you,' to him because once he gets going like that, it makes my job a lot easier."
Just like he was in the MAAC Tournament when Lewis torched three opponents to the tune of 19.7 points and 4.7 rebounds a game. Just before his run, someone whispered to Lewis during a time out, "You're overdue now."
"I just felt like it was time for me to step up," said Lewis, who averaged 12.3 points during his freshman year. "It's either Fish or me sometimes and Fish was struggling a little bit. After I hit my first shot, coach just kept coming to me."
According to Mihalich, there's going to be many nights this season where Fisher and Lewis are carrying the offense.
"They want to be the guy," he said, "and they know they can be the guy."
Niagara might want to save a small piece of the offense for freshman point guard Anthony Nelson, who made all five of his field-goal attempts and finished with 13 points and four assists in his debut.
The Chippewas were led by Nate Minnoy's 21 points and Giordan Watson's 18 points (6 for 20 from the field) and six assists.