LEWISTON – Points figured to be at a premium Friday night for the Niagara men’s basketball team.
The visiting Rider Broncs rode into the Gallagher Center with the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s stingiest defense, allowing an average of just 67.4 points per game.
The Purple Eagles, meanwhile, had the MAAC’s worst offense, scoring just 63.8 points per game.
Niagara wasn’t even able to reach that in a 66-60 loss in front of 1,257 fans at the Gallagher Center. The loss was Niagara’s sixth in seven games and dropped the Purple Eagles to 6-18 overall and 4-9 in the MAAC.
“We’ve got to do a better job of helping ourselves,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “Not turning the ball over, making a few free throws, a couple open looks we had. … We have to do a better job of helping ourselves in those situations.”
Niagara opened the game strong, leading by as many as 12 points in the first half and at halftime, 32-24.
Rider, however, clamped down defensively in the final 20 minutes, using a suffocating half-court trap.
“They did a good job with their press, but we also have to do a better job in our press offense,” Casey said. “The times we stayed with our press offense, I thought we did a pretty good job against them. Then other times, we deviated from it and we didn’t handle the ball well in those situations.”
Broncs big man Kahlil Thomas, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, took over in the paint in the second half. Thomas’ offensive rebound and traditional three-point play gave Rider a 46-45 lead with 9:30 remaining. It was the Broncs’ first lead since they went up 5-4 with 16:36 left in the first half. Thomas finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
“Physically, he did a good job around the basket,” Casey said.
The lead changed hands six times after Thomas’ three-point play, with Rider going ahead for good on a pair of free throws by junior guard Jimmie Taylor that made the score 52-51 with 6:02 to play.
Niagara turned the ball over on three of its next four possessions from that point, finishing the game with 14 turnovers compared to eight for Rider.
“Their press, it was efficient,” said Niagara’s Emile Blackman, who led the Purple Eagles with 17 points. “But we’ve just got to take care of the ball better there. It was a good press, but I mean, it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before. We just have to handle it better.”
A three-pointer from Rider junior Xavier Lundy – who finished with 20 points – put the Broncs up, 61-53, with 2:06 remaining. Neither team shot the deep ball well, with Rider (10-14 overall, 6-7 MAAC) going just 2 of 11 and Niagara finishing 4 for 15.
Niagara got the next five points after Lundy’s three, but missed a chance to cut the deficit to one possession when Blackman’s runner bounced out with 20 seconds remaining. Lundy grabbed the rebound and was fouled, knocking down both free throws to give his team a 64-58 lead.
The Purple Eagles struggled from the stripe, going 8 of 13, with all five of the misses coming in the second half. Three times, a Niagara player missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Niagara leading scorer Matt Scott finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but did commit three turnovers. Freshman Dominic Robb, a 6-foot-8 forward from Pittsburgh, came into the game averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game for Niagara. He needed less than 7 minutes to reach both of those totals, scoring six points and grabbing five rebounds in the first half. He finished the game with 12 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots.
“He gave us a presence around the basket where we could throw it inside and try to get something out of it,” Casey said.
The Purple Eagles stay home to host Iona at 2 p.m. Sunday.