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It's only Dec. 30 but there's a huge conference game tonight in the Gallagher Center.

Niagara hosts Fairfield in a 7 p.m. tipoff (Radio 1440 AM) that holds far more urgency for the Purple Eagles than a normal December game. That's because Niagara (6-4) is trying to avoid a two-game deficit in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standing as well as its first 1-2 start in MAAC play since Joe Mihalich took over as coach in 1998.

Fairfield (5-4 overall, 2-0 MAAC) already owns overtime wins over defending champion Manhattan and Canisius. The Stags, 19-game winners each of the last two seasons, swept Niagara last year.

"Every conference game is like gold," Mihalich said Wednesday. "At the end of the year when you're down to tiebreakers, it's always one game here or there. Whether it's on Dec. 30 or Feb. 27, they're critical.

"And this is certainly a big game. It would give them another road win, make them 3-0. And we're behind a little. We're going to sting all year long from losing to (last-place) Loyola so we have to make up games."

Mihalich isn't happy with his team's first 10 games. True, the Purple Eagles aren't close to the low-rent districts occupied by St. Bonaventure and Canisius. But they expected more.

Consider their losses: the 83-78 defeat in the Preseason NIT opener at Providence that saw NU blow a 13-point lead in the final eight minutes; the 97-89 upset at Loyola, which had lost 45 of its previous 46 games; the 95-92 double-overtime thriller at the University at Buffalo and the 76-74, last-second loss Dec. 22 at Bucknell.

"Shoot, we could have won every single one of those games," Mihalich said. "But shame on us for not doing that. With all due respect to who we played, we haven't won because we didn't take care of what we had to do. We're not satisfied and not happy and we've made a commitment from here to learn."

Mihalich is interested to see if star forward Juan Mendez learns. Mendez was ejected from the Loyola game with seven minutes to play after a technical foul and fouled out against Bucknell with more than six minutes left. He scored 18 points while playing only 23 minutes.

"We're a different team when he's not on the floor," Mihalich said. "I tell him all the time that when (former Manhattan star) Luis Flores got a fourth foul, he never got a fifth because he knew how to play. Juan has to play better defense in foul trouble and know when not to foul."

Fairfield hasn't played since a 68-53 win Dec. 14 over Harvard. The Stags' losses are to two ranked teams (Mississippi State and George Washington) and two Atlantic 10 teams (Saint Joseph's and Fordham).

Junior guard Terrence Todd leads Fairfield in scoring at 13.7 points while 6-foot-9 senior center Deng Gai averages 13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and is second in the nation in blocks (4.6).

"You have to be aware he's there because he's an incredible shot-blocker," Mihalich said of Gai. "But I try to look at a blocked shot the same as a missed shot. You want to go get a loose ball and the rebound."

Mendez enters tonight's game third in the country in scoring at 25.1 points. Senior guard David Brooks (15 ppg) needs nine points to reach 1,000 for his career. Point guard Alvin Cruz has 499 career assists and will become the 10th player in MAAC history with 500.

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