Niagara's Bilal Benn had the kind of first half Sunday afternoon that often drives a scorer to distraction.
He forced some shots, misfired badly on others. When intermission arrived he'd made only 2 of 7 field-goal attempts and had yet to attempt a free throw. Strictly from an offensive standpoint, his game was out of synch.
But Benn, a junior transfer from Villanova, is more than a scorer. He's the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's top rebounder. He ranks among the nation's leaders in steals. There are myriad ways he can contribute until his offense re-emerges, and it's precisely because he's so active on the floor that Benn's scoring is bound to come around.
"We kind of encourage all these guys to not worry about the points," coach Joe Mihalich said. "Play the whole game and fill that stat sheet up . . . and then the scoring will come to you. That's exactly what happened with Bilal. He plays hard. I mean, this guy plays so hard that that's why all these things happen."
Benn's impact was all over the stat sheet by the time Niagara finished off its 75-50 rout of ailing Fairfield before 2009 spectators at the Gallagher Center. He canned 5 of 6 second-half field goals in finishing with a game-high 17 points. He also contributed 11 rebounds, four steals, three assists and two blocks as the Purple Eagles (19-6, 10-3) won their fifth straight. One more victory and it's four 20-win seasons in six years for Mihalich's mid-major machine.
Benn, a powerful 6-foot-5 specimen from Philadelphia, learned to round out his game by necessity.
There weren't enough basketballs to go around on his high school team, which had five Division I players. He had to find other ways to contribute to maximize his playing time.
"Coach Mihalich always tells me to play your game and play as hard as you can, so that's what I try to do," Benn said. "And ever since I came here he let me have a little more freedom on offense that I never had playing for any other team."
"I'm laughing about that because [earlier this season] we were getting ready to play one team that could play a box and one or triangle and two," Mihalich said. "So after practice I said to Bilal, 'Are you OK with that stuff?' He said, 'Coach, I was always on so many good teams that nobody ever played a box and one on me or triangle and two.' So Bilal was always the guy doing dirty work."
The examples of Benn and fellow junior Tyrone Lewis have upped Niagara's commitment on the defensive end of the floor. NU produced 16 steals and forced 21 turnovers against a Fairfield team (15-10, 8-6) that had gone three straight games without double-digit turnovers.
"Any time you play with somebody who plays as hard as Bilal you can't help but follow his lead," guard Rob Garrison said. "It gets contagious, and before you know it soon everybody's diving on the floor for a loose ball. I think coach Mihalich even dove on the sidelines for a loose ball. And it's fun. It's fun basketball when everyone's playing hard."
Benn launched the rout after the Stags closed within six early in the second half. Showing his versatility, he nailed a three and overpowered a crowd to convert on an offensive rebound as Niagara reasserted its command.
Benn was joined in double figures by Lewis (14), plus Garrison and freshman Austin Cooley (10 apiece). Junior swingman Demetrius Williamson was held out of the game as a precaution after suffering a blow to the head against Saint Peter's Friday.
Next up for Niagara: Canisius at the Koessler Center on Thursday.