At the top of its list of what to be thankful for this holiday season, the Niagara women's basketball team has its sophomores.
Toni Smalley and Shaunna Ambrose enjoyed coming-out parties Wednesday night, helping the Purple Eagles earn their first win of the season, 84-76, over Vermont in front of 564 in the Gallagher Center.
Ambrose scored a career-high 25 points while Smalley had a career-high 15. Add to that an impressive second half by junior center Jennifer Roueche, who had a career-best nine rebounds, including six in the second half, and it added up to a Niagara victory.
"I'm just so happy we got the win," said Ambrose. "Our team is really young. We've got six freshmen and they can all play, and all the sophomores can play. We're a young team, at least I think we are, and nobody really knows about us. We're going to surprise a lot of people."
Smalley scored 10 straight points for the Purple Eagles (1-1) in the second half, helping them pull away and build a 13-point lead early in the second half.
"Nothing surprises me when it comes to Toni," Niagara coach Bill Agronin said. "We kid around with her that she's from another planet, but the kid can flat-out play. She has a lot of heart, and she had some big stops for us, too. She just plays, and if she would stop thinking about what to do and just play, she would be outstanding."
Though the Catamounts (1-2) were forced to play catch-up most of the second half, they were rather proficient at it. They turned the 13-point deficit into just four points, 63-59, thanks to a three-pointer and transition baskets off some hasty offensive decisions by the Purple Eagles.
After Vermont had cut the score to 63-59, Ambrose hit a four-point play, then sunk another three-pointer after a Catamount turnover to again give Niagara wiggle room.
The Purple Eagles needed all the breathing space they could muster. With senior guard Eva Cunningham the only returning starter and only player with significant game experience, Niagara at times made the game more interesting than it needed to be with bad shot selection, 16 turnovers and inconsistent defense.
"Eva is so important for us from the minute we step on the floor in practice and will be until the last game of the season," Agronin said. "She controls things. She knows how to play, and the others trust her. They know when she has the ball good things will happen."
Good things came in the form of a game-high 27 points, six assists and six steals from the team's lone senior.
Vermont, thanks to balanced scoring and a 30-14 edge in rebounding, enjoyed a 38-37 halftime lead. In all, the Catamounts held a 49-32 rebounding advantage.
Niagara travels to Tampa, Fla., this weekend for the Roundball Classic, facing Eastern Michigan in the first round Saturday.