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Mihalich has heart-stealing 'dream team'

Niagara had just stifled Canisius, 57-41, in what has become a rather one-sided hoop rivalry. It also gave the Purple Eagles another 20-win season. By now, someone told Joe Mihalich, people are probably taking it for granted.

"There you go," Mihalich said, "sounding like an alum."

You can't blame the Niagara alumni if they're getting spoiled by success. This makes four 20-win seasons in six years. Thursday night's win, as emphatic as it was inelegant, was Niagara's sixth straight and put Mihalich at 199 wins for his 11 seasons on Monteagle Ridge.

It averages out to a shade over 18 wins a year for Mihalich, who waited 17 years for his first Division I head job and has become a rock of consistency in one of the toughest basketball regions in the land. Ask the alumni at Canisius, UB and St. Bonaventure if they'd take it.

Mihalich has won 17 games or more in nine of his 11 seasons. Canisius has done it once during that time. The next time St. Bonaventure wins 17 games, they'll probably close school and have a parade through Olean.

"They build a pretty good foundation and just seemed to keep that momentum going by getting the right pieces, year in and year out," said Canisius coach Tom Parrotta, who was a Mihalich assistant from 1998-2001.

He gets the pieces, all right. Mihalich has a genius for finding players who can thrive at the MAAC level. He doesn't suffocate his players. He gives them freedom to express their talent and trusts them to make the smart, unselfish play in the critical moments.

But he has never had a team like this one. At times, Niagara teams have treated defense as an afterthought. This is easily his best defensive team. Mihalich has a collection of quick, mid-sized players who love to run and gun, but have an equal affection for defense. They're third in the country in steals.

They'll steal your heart if you allow them.

"It is a dream team," Mihalich said after Niagara improved to 11-3 in the MAAC. "I can't tell you how much I love these guys, individually and collectively.

"They all play so hard. They love to play, and they play together. They're selfless. It has all the makings of a team that could make the postseason in the future."

The Eagles lead the nation with 12 wins outside the Gallagher Center. Three weeks from now, they'll walk into the ultimate hostile environment when they play in the MAAC Tournament in Albany, where Siena will be a heavy favorite in front of its home crowd.

Mihalich has said all along that it's Siena and everybody else. That's typical Joe. Niagara will be a tough out in March, and Siena won't be eager to face the Eagles in the tournament. Niagara has size, quickness, depth and, in Tyrone Lewis, a leader who has won it all before.

The Eagles typically hit their stride in February. They embarrassed Canisius on its home court Thursday, holding the Griffs to their fewest points ever in the Koessler Center. They don't take 20 wins for granted, but they have much loftier ambitions.

When the game ended, Niagara broke its huddle by shouting "Twenty-one!" As in, let's go win the next one.

"Our goal this season wasn't to win 20 games," Mihalich said. "It was to win as many as we could."

The focus is winning, and having fun while doing it. That's what attracted Bilal Benn, a 6-foot-5 swingman who transferred to Niagara from Villanova.

"I've never been on a losing team in, well, since I was born," said Benn, who leads the MAAC in rebounding. "That's what coach Mihalich is all about. . . . And when you got somebody who loves the game that much, it just drives you even harder."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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