Demond Stewart's two years at Niagara have flown by. Tonight is the last home game at the Gallagher Center for a senior guard who has made a sudden impact on NU's fortunes.
For his final act on the homecourt, Stewart will once again try to pile up the points against his crosstown rival as NU hosts Canisius (7, Empire, Radio 1440).
Stewart's parents will come to the game from Rochester and so will his sister, Selma - who is a freshman at Canisius.
"But don't worry," Stewart said after practice Tuesday night. "She's a Niagara fan. She has to be."
Selma Stewart has seen her brother burn her school the last two years. Stewart is averaging 29.3 points in three games against the Griffs, including 32 in NU's 80-77 victory Dec. 7 in the Koessler Center.
"I guess some of that is luck," he said. "But I'm really prepared when I play them. I play some of their guys during the summer (in pickup games at Koessler) and I just love to compete."
Niagara (14-11, 11-5) is tied for second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with Siena, which it plays in Saturday's season finale at Albany. Canisius (16-9, 8-8) is a game behind Rider and Manhattan in the battle for fifth and sixth place, the final two slots in the standings that avoid the MAAC tournament's play-in round.
Stewart is leading the MAAC in scoring for the second straight year at 20.3 points, good for 30th in the nation. He averaged 22.9 points and was seventh last year.
Stewart has 1,172 career points, 22nd in school history. His career scoring average of 21.7 points is third on the school's all-time list - behind only Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy (33.1) and Al Butler (22.8).
"I've just tried to play my hardest since I've been here and those numbers are a little strange to me," he said. "I've never focused on that. Sometimes, you just have to be blessed with the situation you come into and I tried to take advantage of it."
Stewart, a transfer from Division II Mercyhurst, poured in a career-high 37 points in last year's season opener at the University at Buffalo and immediately filled the scoring void left by the 1999 graduation of Alvin Young.
Although Stewart has struggled from the field this year (38.8 percent), he has managed to keep producing because he's constantly at the foul line. The 6-3, 200-pounder loves to drive among the trees in the lane rather than merely firing from the perimeter.
Stewart has attempted 223 free throws (second in the nation to Iowa's Reggie Evans) and made 71 percent of them. Stewart had a 17-for-17 game at St. Peter's that's tied for the best perfect outing of the season in the nation. He was 14 for 21 in Sunday's 69-67 win over Loyola, setting an HSBC Arena record for attempts in a game.
"You have to put the defense on their heels and you do that by going to the basket," he said. "You can't be out there to just shoot three-pointers. You don't make them all. . . . They're easy points, that's why they're called free."
"He's a tough matchup because he's so strong," Canisius coach Mike MacDonald said. "He has the ability to draw fouls very well and he's strong enough to absorb a hit and make the basket too. His free throw numbers are just incredible."
Stewart's strength allows him to play taller than 6-3, a key point in the MAAC because the league is full of 6-5 and 6-6 forwards rather than the 6-8 or 6-9 players in major conferences.
"We have to make him work for everything and even then it might be tough," MacDonald said. "The last time we played, he was 5 of 6 from three (-point range) and three of the makes were highly contested."
Tonight's game features a matchup of two of the MAAC's hottest teams. Niagara has won six of its last seven games, Canisius has taken five of its last six.
Niagara leads the series, 79-69, and has won the last three meetings at Gallagher.
Also tonight, St. Bonaventure and UB face uphill battles on the road.
The Bonnies (15-9, 6-6 Atlantic 10) are in Cincinnati to play Xavier (7:30, Radio 1300 and 95.7 FM). Sophomore guard Patricio Prato is expected to return to the lineup after missing nine games due to a broken wrist but center Peter Van Paassen (ankle tendinitis), guard Marques Green (charley horse) and forward Robert Cheeks (sprained knee) are all questionable.
Van Paassen has missed three of the last five games; Green and Cheeks were both hurt in Saturday's 72-60 loss at Duquesne. Xavier (19-5, 10-3) is second in the A-10 to St. Joseph's.
UB (3-20, 1-13) plays a Mid-American Conference game at Ohio University (7, Radio 1520). The Bobcats (14-9, 9-5) drilled the Bulls, 83-66, on Jan. 27 at Alumni Arena.
Conference All Games
W L Pct. W L Pct.
Iona 12 4 .750 19 8 .704
Niagara 11 5 .688 14 11 .560
Siena 11 5 .688 18 9 .667
Marist 10 6 .625 15 11 .577
Rider 9 7 .563 14 11 .560
Manhattan 9 7 .563 12 14 .462
Canisius 8 8 .500 16 9 .640
Fairfield 7 9 .438 11 14 .440
Loyola, Md. 2 14 .125 5 20 .200
St. Peter's 1 15 .063 3 22 .120
Canisius at Niagara, 7:00
Marist at Siena, 7:00
Rider at Iona, 7:30
Manhattan at Loyola, 7:30
Fairfield at St. Peter's, 7:30
Niagara at Siena, 4:30
Canisius at Marist, 7:30