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Niagara falls flat in crunch

When the game is on the line, the Niagara men's basketball team has been able to rely on -- well, no one so far.

The Purple Eagles are lacking that go-to player, that leader in the clutch situations who creates offense, either for himself or his teammates, to spark a win.

Instead, for the last two games, Niagara has blown a double-digit, second-half lead.

On Sunday night, it was St. Peter's that mounted an impressive comeback, earning an 87-84 overtime win in front of 1,714 in the Gallagher Center.

"The good news is the same as the bad news: We've been in every game," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. "We're not losing by 50. We're right there to win the game, and I don't know why but we've been tentative."

It was the fifth straight loss for Niagara (2-5, 0-2 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) and marks the first five-game losing streak for the Purple Eagles since the 1996-97 season. It's also their first 0-2 start in the MAAC since 1997-98. In Friday's

loss to Siena, Niagara blew a 13-point second-half lead. Sunday, Niagara went up 12 points, 51-39, with 16:36 left, but the Peacocks made the comeback look easy thanks to Keydren Clark. The senior had just six points on 1 of 8 shooting in the first half but knocked in five three-pointers in the second half. He finished the game with 42 points -- the fifth 40-point performance of his career.

It was Clark who gave St. Peter's its first lead of the second half, on a three-pointer with 7:08 to play to make it 61-59. It was a back-and-forth battle the rest of regulation.

A jumper by Clark gave the Peacocks a 71-69 lead with 1:36 left, and it looked as if that would hold until Niagara's Charron Fisher pulled down an offensive rebound and fed James Mathis for a layup at the buzzer to send the game to overtime.

St. Peter's built an 80-71 lead thanks in large part to Clark's eight OT free throws. Niagara, meanwhile, failed to score in the extra period until the final minute. In those last 50 seconds, J.R. Duffey scored 10 points, but hopes of a comeback were betrayed by shoddy defense that let the Peacocks get easy baskets on long inbounds plays.

Clark put in a remarkable performance, not only hitting unbelievable shots (including nailing a three-pointer while getting fouled for a rare four-point play) but also creating opportunities by driving to the basket. He was 15 of 16 from the foul line.

"I told him with 12 minutes left in the game to just take it over," Peacocks coach Bob Leckie said. "And he did. He went to the line 16 times, and most of those were in the second half. He's the type of player that can take over a game."

And that's the type of player Niagara doesn't seem to have this year.

The Purple Eagles have solid talent -- Mathis netted 16 points with 17 rebounds and was a force in the low post, while Fisher scored 17 points with 10 rebounds.

But too often, the offense was ineffective with Niagara either standing around or out of control in the half-court set.

"I don't know what it is at the end of the game," Fisher said. "We stopped playing and stopped being aggressive with the ball. In spots instead of trying to score we'd hold the ball, and we've got to keep attacking at all times."

"When we run, we're fine," Mathis said. "We've got to keep running."

It was the first win for St. Peter's (4-4, 2-0 MAAC) in the Gallagher Center since the 1998-99 season.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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