LEWISTON -- There's a skeleton in the closet of the Niagara basketball team and that would be its bench. The Purple Eagles have a Plan A. And they have a Plan B. But it is there that their alphabet ends.
Niagara dressed seven players for the third straight game as it renewed its Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference rivalry with Canisius Wednesday night. Seven players! The Los Angeles Lakers have seven coaches, for crying out loud.
Yes, these are lean times on Monteagle Ridge. When a starter requests a sub, the ball boy asks, "Oil or mayo?" First time the whistle blows Eagles fans think, "Guess we're in foul trouble." A double-double now means you've gone 40 minutes in consecutive games.
Strange thing is, Niagara is playing some of its best basketball of the season after seeing its roster trimmed close to the bone and its sensational sophomore, Charron Fisher, lost for the season. NU knocked Manhattan out of sole possession of the conference lead last Friday night. It lost by four at Fairfield 40 hours later. In each game it committed just 11 turnovers, a remarkable achievement for a team with little remedy for fatigue.
"I don't know if we're consciously trying to do that but we talk about valuing the basketball and the possessions are longer," coach Joe Mihalich said. "We've made the possessions longer defensively, playing some zones, and offensively our possessions are longer, too. In years past we just let Alvin Cruz push it up there and try to find somebody quick."
The Purple Eagles refueled with high octane for the Golden Griffins, hitting their first 10 shots from the field in a 79-72 victory. The game was less than nine minutes old when Mihalich, an uptempo kind of guy, was signaling his team to run clock. Mihalich running clock before intermission? Next thing you know he'll be dressing in Armani.
"It hasn't happened a lot," Mihalich said. "I'm so proud of this team. They did what a good team will do when . . . they got a bad break with Charron. We rallied around that."
It's hardly by design that Niagara prefers to play no blood, no foul. Two freshmen were redshirted before the season. The two who weren't withdrew from school after the first semester. Still, eight was enough, especially when one of them was Fisher. And then what happened? Fisher, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, suffered a season-ending knee injury last week and is out for the year.
Mihalich has his two redshirts in the scorebook, but that's for dire emergencies. To use them in a pinch would be to squander an entire year of their eligibility. For less pressing matters the alternative is Dave Houle, the team's third-year student manager who played on Bishop Kearney's 2002 state semifinal team. Houle was in the scorebook again Wednesday night. Times get tough, he makes like Superman and re-emerges wearing No. 40.
You wonder how they do it, playing as smart as they are, avoiding fouls as they have, undergoing a total makeover two-thirds of the way through the season and flourishing in its wake.
"We just try to be disciplined on defense," guard Lorenzo Miles said. "Since we only got seven guys we pay attention to detail and study our opponents."
"It's caused them to focus more in a lot of ways," Mihalich said.
No one's warmed to the circumstances quite like junior forward Clif Brown. He was averaging about 25 minutes off the bench before Fisher's injury. He's been off the floor one minute since, while scoring 20 or more the past three games.
"When I was in high school I ran cross country," Brown said. "I'd rather just go, not take a break. That's just the way I am.
"So I'm all right. I'm cool with it. Just make sure I don't do stupid fouls but other than that I could go all day."