What would happen to Niagara if Juan Mendez got in foul trouble?
It was one of the pressing questions for the Purple Eagles in this young men's basketball season.
Monday night, head coach Joe Mihalich got his answer.
Junior James Mathis and sophomore J.R. Duffey recorded their first career double-doubles to pace Niagara to a 74-53 over Central Connecticut State in front of 1,465 at the Gallagher Center.
"These two guys won the game for us," Mihalich said. "Look at what they did. They combined for 23 points and 21 rebounds. What an incredible effort for those guys."
Niagara struggled from the get-go as Mendez picked up two fouls just over three minutes into the game. Add to that a four-minute scoreless stretch where even easy offensive rebound layups weren't falling, and Niagara was lucky to be down only by 35-33 at halftime.
But the difference in the game came midway through the second half. As Central Connecticut missed free throws and made just five second-half field goals, Niagara upped its defensive effort and its rebounding strength. The Purple Eagles muscled balls away when they needed to and spread the floor to hit a variety of shots.
"I thought Niagara was very aggressive on the glass," Central Connecticut coach Howie Dickenman said. "They banged us around. I know we have a small team, but I tell our guys I don't care about height, I care about heart and I was disappointed in the heart of our team. We were a good team for maybe 22 minutes. Niagara just wore us down and beat us inside."
The game was tied, 47-47, with 9:49 left to play when Alvin Cruz hit a three-pointer to give Niagara the lead for good. Duffy scored off an offensive rebound, David Brooks converted a three-point play, Mendez had a thunderous dunk, and Mathis scored under the basket for a 12-1 Niagara run and a 59-48 lead with just under five minutes to play.
"I thought our defense was really good again," Mihalich said. "With seven minutes to go, possessions were getting to be pretty valuable. I thought our defense was good and Brooks stepped in and got a couple of steals and we only gave them one shot, that's when (Duffey and Mathis) got their tough rebounds. Then we were able to execute at the offensive end."
While it was Brooks who put on a show in the final five minutes, getting a steal, a rebound and hitting two late three pointers, it was Mathis and Duffy who got the Purple Eagles to that point. The pair put on a strong, gritty performance, helping Niagara outrebound the Blue Devils, 50-35.
"J.R. and J-Mat did a good job on the boards," Mendez said. "They outhustled them. They said to themselves, you know what, second half, we're going to come in and get all the boards. They saw I was out, back against the wall, and they just went out and played. They did a good job."
Duffey finished the game with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three assists while Mathis came off the bench to score 11 points with 10 rebounds and two blocks.
"In the first half, J.R. and I weren't doing a good job," Mathis said. "Me and J.R. have been playing together for a while now, so even though Juan's our horse and Juan's our man, everybody knows that, if he's not in we can hold the fort down until he gets back."
Mendez, even after picking up his fourth foul just 4:45 into the second half, still was the workhorse for Niagara, leading all scorers with 20 points, 14 of which came in the first half, helping to erase an early 10-point Central Connecticut lead.