That was one big collective sigh of relief coming out of the Gallagher Center late Saturday afternoon. Niagara got its first home win of the season in five tries by holding off pesky Duquesne, 78-74, and can now look forward to the long-awaited return of leading scorer Charron Fisher on Tuesday night at Iona.
A tiny, semester-break crowd of 1,022 saw the Purple Eagles (2-6) get terrific guard play from Stanley Hodge, Lorenzo Miles and Tyrone Lewis and lead for the final 22 minutes. Niagara was up by as many as 12 points in the second half and held off several Duquesne rallies as the Dukes never got even.
"We really needed to get back in our winning ways," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, whose team had dropped three straight. "The toughest team today won the game and it was a mental toughness. . . . Our guys just wouldn't give in to a momentum change."
Turnovers were a huge factor. Niagara forced 19 and committed only eight in the face of Duquesne's trapping pressure. The Purple Eagles had a 23-8 edge in points off miscues.
Hodge came off the bench to dish a career-high 10 assists (six in the second half). Miles equaled his career high with seven assists and Lewis, NU's dazzling freshman, scored all 16 of his points in the first half as the Purple Eagles built a 42-35 lead.
It's the third game in a row Hodge, the 6-foot-1 junior from Washington D.C., has helped the Niagara cause. He had six assists Dec. 6 at Siena and had a season-high nine points in last Saturday's loss here to St. John's.
"He's the whipping boy. No one gets on Stanley more than me and I've confused no one more than Stanley Hodge," Mihalich said. "He doesn't know if he's starting, what position he's playing and he just keeps fighting through it all."
"I was more aggressive on offense," said Hodge, who scored all six of his points in a 16-second span early in the second half to push NU ahead, 55-43. "When guys came to me, I just found the open people. [Mihalich] always tells me I've got tough skin. That's the reason he's so hard on me. I'm used to it."
Fisher, NU's top scorer and rebounder last year, returns Tuesday at Iona after missing the season's first eight games for his role in the Aug. 31 fight involving six Niagara players outside a Niagara Falls bar. Niagara has struggled offensively without him but the guards keyed a season-high point total Saturday.
Senior forwards Clif Brown and J.R. Duffey led Niagara with 20 and 17 points, respectively. Duffey, who pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds, had nine points in the final 6 1/2 minutes. His two free throws with 33.1 seconds left put Niagara in front, 76-73.
Duquesne got within one on Aaron Jackson's free throw with 22 seconds left and rebounded his miss but Hodge tied up 6-foot-10 Kieran Achara, giving Niagara possession. After Miles missed the front end of a one-and-one, Jackson missed a driving layup and Brown got the clinching rebound.
Brown's two free throws with 4.7 seconds left sealed the win.
"We just played hard today and that's the bottom line," Duffey said. "We practiced hard this week and coach always tells us that you play how you practice."
"Joe's kids are tough and really bounce back from adversity," said Duquesne coach Ron Everhart. "They had big senior leadership. At every crucial time, it seemed one of their seniors made a big play."
Slick freshman forward Robert Mitchell poured in 26 points to lead Duquesne and probably wrapped up his fourth straight Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week award. The conference record for consecutive rookie honors is five weeks, set by Rhode Island's Lamar Odom in the 1998-99 season.
Niagara freshman guard Javonte Clanton has decided to transfer so he can play at a school closer to his home in suburban Columbus, Ohio, likely in Division II. Clanton, who served a one-game suspension for his role in the Aug. 31 incident, played sparingly in four games and has been struggling to deal with the death of a close friend back home.
"I'm disappointed for him. For a young man, he went through a lot these last few months," Mihalich said. "I wish he hadn't made this decision. I wish he would have stayed but young people have to make big decisions sometimes and we wish him nothing but the best."