It was not the most virtuoso performance ever staged between Niagara University and the University at Buffalo. Not the usual polished show between two programs that goes down to the final minute.
But they do not seek style points in this rivalry, especially Niagara, which had lost to UB five times in a row. What the Purple Eagles needed desperately was a victory.
And so it came Tuesday night in the sold-out Gallagher Center, an 80-63 victory that had to be fashioned with a ferocious defense that produced 26 turnovers and a 21-for-60 shooting night for the Bulls (2-2). The game was settled relatively early and Niagara (2-0) trailed only briefly during the first half.
Once they built a 36-21 lead in the first half, it swelled to 22 points late in the second.
The Purple Eagles did not care that they shot just 8 of 29 from three-point range and were outrebounded by 13. To Niagara, the scoreboard was picturesque thanks to Charron Fisher's game-high 27 points and eight rebounds, Stanley Hodge's career-high 20 points, nine rebounds and five assists and Tyrone Lewis' 18 points.
Then the Purple Eagles, who opened their season last Friday night against Central Michigan, waited for a Bulls run that never happened.
"I told Stanley we can't go out not beating one team in our career," said Fisher, a senior swingman, who missed last season's game against UB while serving a suspension. "He stepped up and played good and I think I played pretty good so it feels good to not have to say we never beat Buffalo."
Beating UB is nice, said coach Joe Mihalich, but Niagara has bigger objectives.
"Our goal is to go to the NCAA Tournament," he said. "We've been to the postseason three of the last four years and while UB has gotten us -- kudos to them for doing that -- what we're trying to do every year is become a real good team by the end of the year and go to the postseason."
Not that there isn't any value in beating UB, or St. Bonaventure or St. John's or any of the remaining opponents on their schedule. Beating opponents like the Bulls prepares them for what lies ahead in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
"When you play them, you get better," Mihalich said. "We played a team that guards you, they play a style that has given us trouble in the past. It's preparing us for our league play. . . . You play [nonleague teams] to sharpen your team for conference play."
Meanwhile, UB coach Reggie Witherspoon had a difficult time picking out anything positive to take from this game. The 26 turnovers matched a season high and they made just 16 of 29 free throws. Despite having a huge size advantage over Niagara, UB seemed intimidated and missed several easy layups.
"Between missing layups, free throws and turnovers, we didn't deserve to win," Witherspoon said. "When you get layups and miss them, maybe there was somebody there I didn't see."
Witherspoon tried several combinations and 13 Bulls received minutes but to no avail. Junior guard Andy Robinson was the only UB player in double figures with 16 points. Sophomore Calvin Betts came off the bench to finish with nine in 13 minutes.
"I'm not happy with anything," Witherspoon said. "There are nights like that, but I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm happy with something."
For Mihalich, it was a bittersweet moment. He learned Monday that his friend, Varick Cutlet, who graduated from North Tonawanda High School in 1971, passed away. Mihalich played with Cutlet for two seasons at La Salle.
"I couldn't sleep [Monday] night," Mihalich said. "We were inseparable. All we wanted to do is play ball. When I got the phone call, it was a kick in the head. I can't stop thinking about him. He made my life a lot better."
The Bulls and Purple Eagles are traveling to Pittsburgh for their next games. UB plays at Pitt on Friday, while Niagara takes on Duquesne on Saturday.