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BACKCOURT LEADS NIAGARA TO TOP OF MAAC STANDINGS

When Joe Mihalich was an assistant at La Salle in the late 1980s, All-America forward Lionel Simmons got the bulk of the attention. But Niagara's first-year coach fondly remembers when the Explorers had NBA-bound Randy Woods and Doug Overton in the backcourt as well.

Mihalich is living those days again this year. Niagara seniors Alvin Young and Jeremiah Johnson have exploded to become the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's best guard tandem, averaging 39 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.7 assists between them.

"Woods and Overton tried to uphold and follow the extraordinary things Simmons did," Mihalich recalled Friday as his team practiced for tonight's 7 p.m. game with Rider University in the Gallagher Center. "Maybe my two guys are trying to set the standard for the next five years at Niagara.

"Maybe everybody will say, 'Remember Jeremiah and Alvin? We've got to work as hard as they worked and be as good as them.' "

Johnson and Young are the key reasons Niagara (10-7, 7-1) is in first place in the MAAC despite a season-ending injury to center Kevin Jobity.

Their seasons to date:

Young is averaging 22.8 points, tied for seventh in the nation. His per-game average is the highest at NU since Calvin Murphy's 29.4 in 1969-70.

Johnson is averaging 16.2 points -- double his career average of 8.1 entering this year. He's also averaging 4.6 assists and has tied Phil Scaffidi for third on the school's all-time list with 408.

Johnson and Young had 35 and 33 points, respectively, in Monday's 119-108 win over Marist. It was the first time Niagara had two 30-point scorers in the same game since Murphy (38) and Marshall Wingate (33) did it in a 111-89 win over St. Francis (N.Y.) on Jan. 22, 1970.

In NU's other huge win, an 87-73 Dec. 6 thumping of defending MAAC champion Iona, Johnson and Young combined for 60 points, 16 steals and 11 rebounds.

A matchup with Rider (7-9, 3-5) is one of the bigger challenges in the guard-heavy MAAC. Rider seniors Greg Burston (16.4 ppg) and Kevin Finefrock are solid guards, with Burston a returning all-conference pick.

"Every night, you're playing a tough guard in this league," Johnson said. "It's hard but it's great competition. You want to show the other guy what you've got and he'll show you what he has."

What Niagara has shown is a breakneck style that has produced an average of 88.6 points in five MAAC home games.

"Coach Mihalich told us the first time we ever met him that 'You guys are going to get up and go this year,' " Johnson recalled of a meeting Mihalich held last April. "We got to preseason conditioning and it was hell. Running on that track (across campus at the Kiernan Center) and getting ready, he was instilling in us we were going to get up and down the floor."

Young is getting notoriety for his scoring, but it's Johnson that holds Niagara together. In his first three years as NU's point guard, the 6-footer's decision-making was constantly scrutinized by fans and former coach Jack Armstrong. Mihalich told him not to fear mistakes and Johnson has responded.

"What's unfair to point guards in general is that when they make a mistake, it's a statistic," Mihalich noted. "When a big guy misses a screen or doesn't box out, it doesn't go down in the scorebook. But when a point guard makes a mistake, everybody in the arena knows it.

"I've really been impressed with Jeremiah's approach to the game. At times this year, I've just been in awe of him and Alvin."

As captains, Johnson and Young have become extensions of Mihalich on the floor.

"Me and Alvin being the seniors, we have to come out and set the tone early," Johnson said. "If other guys aren't doing their job, we have to get on them. That's the role we play. We have to be the two cops, but we don't really have to do it much because people on this team play hard every night."

Niagara has taken few nights off and the result has been a startling run to the top of the MAAC. Tonight's game marks the halfway mark of the conference schedule.

"It's been great," Johnson said. "If someone would have told me we'd be 7-1 and in first place without Kevin Jobity, I'd look back and say, 'Wow.' It shows the character we have on this team that we've pulled through.

"We have a legitimate chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. We can win this thing. We have the character, the personnel and the drive to want to do that."
Elsewhere today, Canisius (8-8, 4-4 MAAC) seeks its fourth straight win when it hosts Manhattan (3-12, 1-6) in the Koessler Center at 2.

The University at Buffalo (4-15, 0-8 Mid-American) tries to snap its eight-game losing streak and avenge an 88-67 loss in December when it meets Central Michigan (7-9, 4-4) in Alumni Arena at 7:30. Both games are on Radio 1520.

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