SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A few minutes before the start of Niagara’s MAAC Tournament prequarterfinal Thursday night, I ran into the Eagles’ biggest and most outspoken fan in the tunnel at MassMutual Center.
“So,” I asked Anthony Mason, “what did you think of the nation’s second-leading scorer only making second-team all-MAAC?”
The former Knicks star, who was never shy about expressing his opinion in his playing days – often at the point of an elbow – hesitated. Mason muttered something about rankings not mattering.
Then “Mace” cut the platitudes and got right to the point. What did he really think about his son, Antoine Mason, being relegated to the all-MAAC second team in a voting of the league coaches?
“I think it was a travesty,” he said. “He’s getting double-teamed and he’s not first team. Who’s the five before him? I don’t know. But I guess it’s the losing record or whatever the case may be. But that had nothing to do with the way he played.”
One of the knocks on him, I told Big Mace, is that he didn’t make the players around him better.
“If that’s the case,” Mason said, “don’t double-team him. That’s what everybody in the league is doing. Obviously, he’s a top player to them.”
It might give him motivation to score 40 tonight, I said.
“That’s what I told him,” Mason said with a smile.
Evidently, the kid listened. Mason always listens to his father, who pushed him to be a better player in the summers on the New York City playgrounds and attends virtually all his games at Niagara.
Antoine probably didn’t need a lot of prodding. Clearly motivated to prove his worth as a star and team player, Mason had one of the best games of his career as Niagara barely held off Marist, 78-76, and advanced to Saturday night’s quarterfinals.
Mason didn’t quite make it to 40 (he’s never scored that many). He finished with 38 points, one shy of his career high set in late December. He added six rebounds, a season-high four assists and played 40 minutes.
It sure looked like the statement of a player who felt he had a score to settle with his critics.
“In terms of making a statement, he’s going to tell you no,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey, who won his MAAC tourney debut, “but he’s as competitive as they come. So I’m sure in his heart and his mind, he did want to make a statement. And I think the numbers speak for themselves.”
Mason was assertive from the outset, taking the ball to the basket and scoring with either hand. Mason scored six points early as Niagara surged to a 13-2 lead. He scored six in a row to push the lead to 15 – hitting three free throws after being fouled on a shot behind the arc, then making a conventional three-pointer on a drive.
On the next possession, Mason drove the lane, shed one defender with a shoulder fake, switched the ball from his right to his left hand and squeezed in a layup to score. At that point, Niagara was leading, 26-10, and Mason was outscoring Marist, 16-10, by himself.
What’s that? He doesn’t make the guys around him better? Was it Mason’s fault that four of the top six players in the program bolted after Joe Mihalich took the Hofstra job? Mason sticks around, tries to lift a thin, experienced roster and he’s less of a team guy?
“I don’t know where that idea came from, or who came up with it, but it couldn’t be more wrong,” Casey said. “He makes everybody around him better, including me. He makes me look like I know what the heck I’m doing.”
Mason was the epitome of the team player. His every move was forceful and assured as he led the Purple Eagles to a commanding lead. But after building a lead of 24 points, Niagara found its level and began to play like a 6-25 squad.
They missed free throws. They played soft defense in the post. Most of all, they melted against Marist’s full-court press. Red Foxes coach Jeff Bower was wise to force Niagara into a fast tempo that created turnovers and quick possessions – a proven recipe for cutting into a big lead.
But in the end, Mason wouldn’t allow his team to lose. He was clearly fatigued down the stretch, as the Purple Eagles frittered away their lead and seemed on the precipice of a monumental collapse.
“I was a little winded,” Mason said. “But I should have made my free throws. And I don’t care about the stats. I just want to win.”
Marist scored with 16 seconds left to get within two, 78-76, for a final time. They fouled Mason with 13 seconds to play. With a chance to seal the victory, Mason missed both free throws. But the Eagles survived, barely.
He missed his chance to score 40, but you can bet his dad wasn’t complaining. The MAAC coaches, no doubt, took notice.