After three months of questions, Niagara is finding some answers. The biggest revelation is that the Purple Eagles' fortunes don't solely rest with guards Daryl Greene and Demond Stewart.
Greene didn't play Thursday night due to foot injuries, Stewart was ineffective and Niagara still maintained its charge to the top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
"There were times this year when I wondered if we had the character," NU coach Joe Mihalich admitted after his team's 68-60 victory over Marist in the Gallagher Center. ". . . We've become a team with a lot of character and we've really had to grow to do it."
Niagara (12-10, 9-4) has won four straight to pull into a second-place tie with Marist (14-9, 9-4) and set up a showdown for first place with Iona (17-7, 10-3) here Saturday night. In a made-for-ESPN 2 special, the teams will stage a midnight tipoff in the network's first visit to Monteagle Ridge.
"It was hard not to think about that game because the setting is so unique," Mihalich said. "It was hard not to talk about it because everybody on campus was talking about it, but we had such a big game tonight. The guys did a good job of handling that."
Michael Schmidt led Niagara with 15 points and seven assists and a crowd of 1,678 also went home happy thanks to the efforts of NU's role players.
Sophomore point guard Rhossi Carron played a career-high 34 minutes in place of Greene and collected career bests of 14 points, five assists and four rebounds. Freshman forward Tremmell Darden also chipped in 14 points, going 8 for 8 from the free-throw line in the second half.
"Rhossi works so hard," Schmidt said. "He helps Daryl out every day in practice and people don't see that. It showed today."
Carron had nine points and all of his assists by halftime. He hit a pair of three-pointers in a 10-0 run that gave the Purple Eagles a 34-19 lead and they settled for a 39-28 advantage at the break. Marist got within five midway through the second half but Darden scored six points in an 8-0 burst to put the game away.
Greene (tendinitis in the right ankle,
turf toe in the left foot) is questionable for Saturday.
"I didn't do anything different. I practiced the same," said Carron, who was averaging just 3.1 points and one assist. "It was unfortunate Daryl didn't get to play. That's not good for the team at all. I just went out there and did my best."
"He was fantastic," Mihalich said. "That was the story of the game, the way Rhossi came out and played that first half."
The production of Carron and Darden overshadowed Stewart's seven-point output on 2-for-9 shooting. Hindered by foul trouble, Stewart failed to hit in double figures for just the second time this season.
NU's defense, meanwhile, held Marist to 23 of 65 from the field (6 of 21 from three-point range). Niagara consistently had centers Shey Cohen, Luis Villafane and James Reaves popping out high to bother Marist's screen-oriented attack. That trio got the job done offensively as well, combining to hit 7 of 9 from the field and grab 18 rebounds (nine by Reaves).
Guard Sherman Whittenburg came off the bench to lead Marist with 18 points. Forward Drew Samuels, battling a bone chip in his ankle, was held to four points and one rebound. He was averaging 17.4 points and 8.9 boards.
Now comes Saturday night/Sunday morning, when the eyes of the nation will be on the Gallagher Center. School officials are hoping for a raucous purple-clad crowd as T-shirts will be handed out and sign contests will be held for the benefit of the TV cameras.
"It will be neat," Mihalich said. "We're not going to do anything differently. These are college kids. Midnight is when their day usually starts. Midnight is nothing for them."