LEWISTON — If college basketball did away with the scoreboard and went to an electoral college format, Niagara would have been declared the winner over Rider on Sunday afternoon. Since the scoreboard remains in vogue, the Purple Eagles’ losing streak reached four games and defense was once again the culprit.
Niagara did much well Sunday in its 90-78 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference loss to the Broncs at the Gallagher Center. The Purple Eagles put up 23 more shots from the field, scored 24 more points in the paint, committed five fewer turnovers. Those advantages in concert would translate to victory seemingly 99 times out of 100.
But one statistic in particular continues to undermine all Niagara’s pluses. Opponents are hitting shots at dizzying rates that have the Purple Eagles beelining toward the bottom of the 345-team Division I ranks in key defensive categories.
Rider (8-7, 4-2) riddled Niagara’s resistance at a 55.3 clip, slowing after a first half that saw the Broncs go off at 60 percent. The thing is, for Niagara that qualifies as improvement. Two games ago Iona sizzled at 64.5 percent against the Purple Eagles. On Friday night Monmouth torched them at a 62.8 percent rate. Over the last three games Niagara foes have cashed a cumulative 93 of 152 from the field – 61.2 percent.
So much for the idea that offense would be the big concern after Joe Mihalich took the Hofstra job with all-MAAC guard Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley in tow. The Purple Eagles are scoring it just fine. Antoine Mason, the national leader, had 26 and sophomore guard Tahjere McCall struck for a career-high 23. One would think 78 points would win most games. But Niagara has averaged 80 over the last four and lost every one of them.
“De-fence” is where the Purple Eagles are sitting in their commitment to the less glamorous side of the game. They went into Sunday ranked No. 330 in field goal percentage defense (48.3) and No. 341 in scoring defense (85.3). And they’re headed downward.
“We got to get better defensively,” said coach Chris Casey. “I think what we’re doing right now that we need to correct – and I got to figure this out – what we’re doing is we’re getting to points in the game where we’re right there and we’re not making the plays after that.”
“I think we do most of the things well on defense, but it’s the times we don’t do it well is the times we need to do it well,” said sophomore guard Tahjere McCall. “We’ll do well to get back within two points or four points, and then they’ll miss a shot and get an offensive rebound or we’ll just have a defensive collapse, not talking, just little things. That’s partly my fault, too. I gamble too much.”
But, as opponent shooting percentages indicate, these aren’t isolated occurrences. Rider, a diverse offensive team, never missed more than three straight shots from the field, and rebounded from that slump by making six of its next eight. Zedric Sadler and Anthony Miles scored 20 each, Jimmie Taylor 15 and Daniel Stewart 14. Stewart was the only Bronc to shoot under 50 percent (3 of 8). Rider was 10 of 20 from beyond the arc.
“We’re tough to guard when we’re moving the ball,” said Rider coach Kevin Baggett. “We did a good job. We shot the three. We did a good job of finding guys who were open today.
“Niagara tried to double us at times and they did a decent job but we were able to find the open guys once they knew that.”
Rider opened a 16-point advantage on a Myles jumper that made it 66-50 with 12 minutes left. Niagara closed the gap to five on a Ramone Snowden tip-in with about eight minutes to go but two Myles free throws and a Sadler three opened a 11-3 burst that put it away.