Talk about an early Christmas present. With his frontcourt looking feeble again, Niagara coach Joe Mihalich played a hunch and put little-used freshman Luis Villafane on the Gallagher Center court in the first half Sunday night against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
Mihalich may have unwrapped himself a new center.
The 6-foot-10, 220-pound Villafane energized the Purple Eagles as they immediately wiped out a nine-point deficit and took a 41-38 halftime lead. They eventually cruised to an 81-71 non-conference win to improve to 6-2 and continue their best start in seven years.
Villafane collected six points, seven rebounds, four blocks, two steals and an assist in 20 minutes. Dogged by ankle trouble, he had totaled just two points and two rebounds in three appearances.
"I think this was the birth of Luis today," Mihalich said. "There's no question he changed the whole game. When he went in, every shot was altered and he got some tough rebounds.
"The only thing I'm upset with is that Luis doesn't do this in practice. If he'd do it in practice, he'd be in there a whole lot sooner."
Villafane, an 18-year-old from San Juan, Puerto Rico, signed with Niagara over the summer.
Villafane entered the game with Niagara in a 34-25 hole and 6:37 left in the first half. Fourteen seconds later, he dunked on a feed from fellow frosh Rhossi Carron. He had another dunk a few minutes later and blocked shots on back-to-back possessions.
"I got four points on two dunks right away," Villafane said. "I was surprised by that."
Niagara was giving up nearly two more rebounds per game to its opponents, but it had a 41-35 advantage on the boards Sunday. Shey Cohen and Peter Strobl, the starters at center over the first seven games, combined for just four points and two rebounds.
He caused chaos for Maryland-Eastern Shore's offense, changing virtually every shot the Hawks tried. UMES (3-5) hit only two field goals after Villafane entered in the first half and was just 11 of 29 in the second half.
"It changed the way they were playing," said NU forward Nate Bernosky. "They were getting to the rim too easily on us and then he came in and they couldn't do anything."
"There's an element we haven't had for a long time," Mihalich said.
NU was never threatened after a 10-0 burst in the second half broke open what had been a six-point game. Villafane was in the middle of that run, too.
His two-hand block of Demetric Reese (game-high 24 points) wowed the crowd and prompted UMES coach Lonnie Williams to go ballistic and earn a technical foul. The Purple Eagles got a Daryl Greene free throw and a Luke Dobrich three-pointer in the wake of the technical.
Villafane hurt his ankle during the Purple Eagles' exhibition game last month against McMaster and got just one minute of time in the first four games. With the struggling frontcourt getting pushed around with ease, assistant coach Tom Parrotta stunned Mihalich prior to a Dec. 8 game at St. Francis (Pa.).
"Tom said, 'I've got a hunch," Mihalich recalled. "You guys are going to think I'm crazy. We just have to give Luis a shot."
Villafane played five minutes that night (one block, one rebound) and 13 minutes in Tuesday's overtime win at Youngstown State (two points, one rebound).
Then came Sunday.
"I think the sky's the limit for Luis," Mihalich said. "You can't teach somebody to be 6-10 and to be as long and as active as he is."
The crowd of 1,036 quickly took to Villafane. Chants of "Looo, Looo" bounced around the gym in the second half.
Niagara is off until playing at No. 15 Texas on Dec. 28.