Niagara's survival instincts were put to the test Sunday evening.
The Purple Eagles needed overtime to beat lowly Loyola College, 69-67, in the second game of a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference doubleheader at HSBC Arena. Both games were played before a combined crowd of 3,125.
This would have been a damaging loss for Niagara (14-11, 11-5 in the MAAC). But the win, coupled with Siena's (18-9, 11-5) victory at Iona (19-8, 12-4) Sunday, keeps the Purple Eagles in contention for the regular-season title and the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament at HSBC.
"Everything is still up for grabs now, so we can control our own destiny," said senior guard Demond Stewart, who led Niagara with 23 points and 12 rebounds. He made only 4 of 19 shots, but was 14 of 21 at the free throw line.
Niagara scored 26 points off 18 Loyola turnovers, and had an 18-5 edge in second-chance points. But the Purple Eagles couldn't put Loyola (5-20, 2-14) away because they shot just 30.2 percent from the field (19 of 63), including a woeful 5 of 25 from three-point range, and made only 26 of 42 free throws (61.9 percent).
"The spin we're going to take is this was great for us," said NU coach Joe Mihalich, whose team has won six of its last seven games going into Wednesday's showdown with Canisius at the Gallagher Center.
"This is the floor (where) someone is going to win a championship in our league, and they're probably going to have a game like that," Mihalich said. "Would we have preferred to play excellent basketball and thorough basketball and make our shots and make our foul shots and etc., etc., etc.? Absolutely.
"It would have been much better to win by 10, 15 or 20. But we didn't, so at this time of the year I think it's important to look at the glass as half full. We were lucky to win the game, but we were lucky to have an experience like this."
The game was uneventful until the final three minutes of regulation. Loyola built its biggest lead at 60-56 on a three-pointer by freshman guard B.J. Davis (18 points), but Stewart's four points and a three-pointer by Michael Schmidt (14 points) put Niagara ahead, 63-60, with 31.4 seconds left.
After backup center Luis Villafane missed two free throws, Loyola freshman forward John Reimold (15 points) drilled an open three-pointer near the top of the key with 1.7 seconds left. Stewart's 40-foot heave bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
Injured point guard Daryl Greene was forced to play in OT for Niagara when Rhossi Carron suffered a dislocated finger on his left hand. But the Purple Eagles survived the crisis, thanks to Schmidt's late heroics.
Schmidt grabbed a missed three-pointer by Green and passed to freshman center James Reaves (17 points) for a layup while falling out of bounds. Reaves completed the three-point play to give Niagara a 68-66 lead with 1:20 left.
"I saw Mike hustling, so I tried to make myself available to catch the pass," Reaves said. Schmidt got another offensive rebound when Villafane missed two more free throws with Niagara up by a point. Schmidt made only one of two from the line with 3.9 seconds left, but Loyola couldn't get off a clean shot as time expired.
"I was struggling on offense, so I just tried to do other things to help our team," Schmidt said. "Luckily, I got my hand on a couple of balls."