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EAGLES TRANSFORMED INTO NIGHT OWLS IN LOSS TO IONA

LEWISTON -- While most people in Western New York were snug in their beds late Saturday night with visions of Sunday's chores in their heads, the 2,400 at the Gallagher Center had never been more awake.

After all, national television time is national television time. You take it when you can get it.

So what if the game started at midnight? That's still prime time -- on the West Coast.

The student sections were packed, full of rowdy, ready-to-go campus dwellers in their free purple T-shirts, belting out loud choruses of "Rock and Roll Part I." And that was 40 minutes before ESPN2 began its broadcast of the game between Niagara and Iona.

But perhaps there was a little bit too much adrenaline on the Niagara side at the start of the game Saturday.

The Purple Eagles came out a little too hyped up, committing five turnovers in the first six and a half minutes and just like that, they were down, 22-6. It was too much to overcome as Niagara (12-11, 9-5) blew its chance to tie Iona (18-7, 11-3) for first place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, dropping a 70-64 decision to the Gaels.

The crowd suffered from the ill effects of adrenaline rush, too. Students, new to national television exposure, acted like one big freshman class for the first seven minutes. They did have an enabler -- during the first timeout, the cheerleaders tossed free paraphernalia into the stands, including small plastic purple basketballs. Two made their way back on the court, and Niagara was assessed a technical foul at 14:05 of the first half. Earl Johnson made the ensuing free throw.

"It gets us fired up just to see the faces in the crowd," said Iona senior Nakiea Miller. "There was a lot of trash-talking when we first got on the court. But, all in all, it was a great atmosphere. . . . Maybe we should play all our games at midnight."

"It was a great night for college basketball," said Joe Mihalich, the Niagara head coach. "The place was rocking. It was a great service for the league and we're proud of that. And at the same time, we're disappointed we laid a bit of an egg."

If there's a time in a young man's life when he wants to play his best basketball, it's when the ESPN cameras are around. And this was the first time they had ever been at Monteagle Ridge.

The Purple Eagles have been on ESPN before -- in the 1988 NAC final against Boston University and in the 1992 MAAC championship game. But this was their first regular-season national audience. Purple Eagle fans can thank St. John's for that.

"Last year, ESPN needed us to move our game with St. John's so they could get them in another game on TV that day," said NU athletic director Mike Herman. "As kind of a reward for being accommodating and in recognition of what we've done as a program here, they agreed to get us a game this year."

But the midnight slot? Well, why not? Historically, it's been a good experience for the ESPN folk. It's no longer a game, but an event.

Or maybe a big house party -- complete with those events you'd rather forget.

Like Niagara's shooting, which was as forgettable as the student who, at halftime, decided to moon the crowd to show he painted NU on his lower cheeks.

At one point, the Purple Eagles were just 3 of 21 from the field. They shot only 25 percent in the first half -- just 30.4 percent for the game. They were even worse from three-point range, making just 4 of 27 attempts.

Senior Demond Stewart finished with a double-double -- 20 points and 11 rebounds -- but did it on a paltry 8-for-27 shooting night, 2 for 11 on threes.

"I think we had great looks. I know I did," Stewart said. "But sometimes, the ball doesn't go down for you."

The ball doesn't go down much for teams who play Iona. The Gaels are in the top half of most defensive shooting statistics in the league, including a MAAC-best in field goal percentage defense.

Still, Niagara hung in the game, thanks in large part to its rebounding and Iona's poor free-throw shooting. The Gaels shot just 45.5 percent from the foul line, including making just 9 of 23 free throws in the second half. While Niagara may have been missing a lot, the Purple Eagles did crash the glass, outrebounding Iona by 11 and collecting 22 offensive rebounds.

The lead was whittled away in the final 10 minutes. Freshman Tremmell Darden could have tied the game with 5:25 left, but he missed the second half of a two-shot foul. Stewart again brought the Purple Eagles within one on a three-pointer with 3:17 left, but Niagara would never score again.

"We always thought we were in the game," said Niagara freshman James Reaves, who had 11 points and 12 rebounds. "We were fighting until the end, but they hit some big shots and got some big rebounds and that did it."

Four players scored in double figures for Iona, led by Miller's 16 points and senior Earl Johnson's 15 with eight assists.

It was a double-edged disappointment for the Purple Eagles. First, there was dropping the opportunity to share first place with Iona and gain a game in a league where the "on-any-given-day" philosophy is a reality.

Second, there was dropping the opportunity to shine in front of a rowdy crowd and earn their ESPN SportsCenter moment.

"It was great seeing everybody there cheering us on and that's what makes you feel so bad when you lose at home," Stewart said. "You feel like you didn't do your job out there."

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