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Red-hot Cicerone, Bulls silence Purple Eagles, keep Big 4 Shield

Russell Cicerone jogged toward the Niagara fans and yelled, "It's too easy!"

The nation's leading scorer had just helped push his Bulls to a 2-0 lead over the Purple Eagles in typical fashion. With a full head of steam down the left side, Cicerone cruised forward as two defenders converged on him, blocking his path from entering the 18-yard box.

No sweat.

The University at Buffalo's talisman hesitated to freeze his markers, then scythed through the double-team, shrugged off an onrushing help defender before laying the ball off to Braden Scales for a wide-open shot from the penalty-kick mark. The fellow senior made no mistake.

With the eventual 3-0 win, the Bulls protected the Big 4 Shield for the second-straight match - they beat Canisius on Aug. 28 - and if they beat lowly St. Bonaventure on Wednesday, Stu Riddle's side will hold the hardware for at least another 11 months.

The full moon looms over Niagara Field for Purple Eagles vs. Bulls. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

The full moon looms over Niagara Field for Purple Eagles vs. Bulls. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

[Read: Check out the four other matches in BN Soccer's five matches to attend]

"I couldn't be more proud because both wins were on the road, which is hard to do, against cross-town rivals with fans coming out screaming [at us]," said Cicerone, who finished with two goals and an assist.

Cicerone's five-point night vaults his season total to 10 goals and six assists; his 26 points are seven ahead of Vermont's Brian Wright, who's second in the country.

"I thought tonight I played exceptionally well," Cicerone answered when asked to evaluate his performance. "When I get on the ball and moving off Scotty [Doney] and [Steven] Stryker, I think we have good chemistry right now and things are flowing nicely."

CONTROVERSIAL RED CARD: The Purple Eagles went down a man in the 35th minute, as Zulfikar Karimi earned his second yellow card for tripping UB's Steven Stryker, who'd punished Karimi for a poor clearance and zoomed forward on a partial breakaway.

"I just don't think we need to make that call as a second yellow," said Niagara head coach Bill Boyle, who had an extended chat with the referees on the field after the match.

"I don't think, knowing the level of the game, that it's a call that has to be made. We can argue all day whether it is or isn't a yellow card, I just don't think it has to be."

[Look back at live tweets from UB's 3-0 win over NU]

A resilient Niagara side didn't collapse after Karimi's sending off. In fact, the Purple Eagles' numerical disadvantage was barely noticeable for the final 10 minutes of the half.

Niagara's Bauti Pedezert pleads his case to the head official late in the first half. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Niagara's Bauti Pedezert pleads his case to the head official late in the first half. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

NU's Fabrizio Chiari and Bautista Pedezert worked hard for each other in the middle of the park throughout the contest, frequently keeping the ball with quick, short passes. Their efforts kept the match interesting, but UB wouldn't be pinned down for long.

"We had to regroup at halftime because it's difficult when the other team goes down to 10, and we sort of let our foot off the gas," Riddle explained. "Our halftime talk was about being professional, finishing the first game off in the first 20 minutes of the second half, and we managed to do that, which is great."

GOAL RUNDOWN: While the lede elaborated on Cicerone's 59th-minute assist, his first goal - in the 15th minute - showcased the senior's clinical finishing.

Hanging off the inside shoulder of Niagara center back Shiquan Lowe, Cicerone darted diagonally at the instant Tommy Fogarty-Cameron lobbed the ball over the back line. Lowe could not possibly react in time - Cicerone had tucked his shot inside the left post before the Purple Eagle defender could retreat.

Perhaps unfairly, Lowe was the culprit again in the 61st minute, as Cicerone accelerated past the Niagara freshman and released a shot wide of the near post. Roughly a second after Cicerone uncorked his strike, Lowe collided into the Bull from behind.

Despite Niagara's pleas that Lowe's tackle was not malicious and came long after the errant shot, the center referee stubbornly pointed to the penalty spot. Cicerone sent Niagara keeper Steven Casey the wrong way, finishing low to the right for the game's final tally.

"I don't think that needs to be a PK," Boyle argued after the match.

Niagara goalkeeper Steven Casey rises to corral a corner kick before Cicerone can arrive. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Niagara goalkeeper Steven Casey rises to corral a corner kick before Cicerone can arrive. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

STIFLING DEFENSE: With all the attention veering toward the reigning Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, it's easy to lose sight of how consistent the UB defense has been.

Goalkeeper Joseph Kuta, who stoned Niagara's Adel Rahman on a breakaway in the 81st minute, is the last line of defense behind returning starters Fox Slotemaker, David Enstrom, Austin Place and Alec Fisher.

"I was texting the boys the other night, as I do on a weekly basis, and I said to Fox and David that they worried me a little bit in the spring," Riddle said. "I've got absolutely no worries about them right now; they're like glue in keeping it together and they're so mentally in tune every day it's just fantastic.

"To have seven games with just one goal against is just absolutely incredible."

[Watch: UB's Rikard Lindqvist finds himself on SportsCenter's Top 10 plays]

HISTORY BOOK: UB's seven-game win streak is the second longest in program history; the 2005 Bulls won eight in a row before falling to St. Francis PA.

WHAT'S NEXT: The Bulls visit South Florida for a 1 p.m. match on Sept. 18, then return home for a Big 4 Shield defense match against St. Bonaventure on Sept. 21. UB doesn't begin conference play until Oct. 7 at defending champion Akron.

Niagara travels to Olean for a 3 p.m. match on Sept. 18 before starting Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play with two games on the road. Boyle's side returns home for a 3 p.m. clash Oct. 5 against Siena.

Email Ben Tsujimoto, who won't feel guilty for missing Bills games this fall, at btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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