Maybe it was the emphatic loss at Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference favorite Siena in late January that got their attention. Maybe the pleas of coach Joe Mihalich finally sunk in.
Whatever the catalyst, it's clear that Niagara has reinvented itself over the last couple of weeks. No longer do the Purple Eagles take the floor daring opponents to outscore them. Instead, they challenge foes to outdefend them, to outwork them, to prove that they're mentally tougher. And they're not finding any takers.
"We just feel like that's our bread and butter," junior Tyrone Lewis said. "We got guys that can score a lot of points, but we're not really worried about that. That's just the type of team we are right now. When we bring our best defense we're going to win every game."
Niagara was at its suffocating best as its winning streak reached six games with a 57-41 victory over beleaguered Canisius on Thursday night at the Koessler Athletic Center. The Griffs shot just 24.5 percent from the field, the worst showing in school history. The 41 points were an all-time Canisius low in the KAC, their fewest in any game since 1981 and their fewest against Niagara since Feb. 10, 1940.
Consider that Niagara (20-6, 11-3) held the upper hand throughout the night despite matching its lowest point total of the season against a Canisius team that came in ranked 37th in the nation in field-goal defense.
"If someone would have told me we would hold them to 36 percent from the field and 25 percent from three and they would only score 57 points, I'd say we had a pretty good chance of winning the basketball game," said Griffs coach Tom Parrotta. "Clearly, as we've said for a while, our defense is way ahead of our offense."
The Griffs (7-18, 2-13) could get little going in losing their sixth straight. Niagara's seven first-half steals fueled a fast break that produced 15 points as the Purple Eagles built a 31-20 halftime lead. Meanwhile, Canisius grew frustrated trying to find ways to solve Niagara's man-to-man pressure.
The Griffs didn't manage a two-point field goal until nearly midway through the first half. The Griffs scored 11 of their 21 second-half points in the first four minutes as Niagara produced its lowest defensive point total since 1986 and held an opponent to 55 or fewer points for the fifth straight game. They accomplished that feat only once in their first 21 games.
"It was a game where we really did a good job defensively," Mihalich said. "We just had four bad minutes of defense. I think the first four minutes of the second half they scored 11 points before the first media timeout. We discussed that a little bit in the first timeout. Other than that I thought our defense was just rock solid."
"I don't think they get enough credit for being a pretty good defensive team," Parrotta said. "They play an unorthodox style. There's literally four perimeter guys out there and one forward, and they're all quick, they're all tough, they're all pretty smart as well. They get their hands in a lot of passing lanes and they can disrupt a lot of things out there."
Sophomore point guard Anthony Nelson made sure this one didn't slip away after Canisius made its move early in the second half. Nelson steadied the offense after the Purple Eagles started getting perimeter happy instead of utilizing the inside presence of Bilal Benn (12 points, 11 rebounds) and center Benson Egemonye (nine points, 10 boards).
"I thought we were settling for too many jump shots," Nelson said. "We were taking it to the basket, that's when we were building our lead. We went to a stretch where I think they closed the gap to eight. Then we just brought it in, talked amongst ourselves and just said we were going to take it to the basket."
Lewis had a team-high 14 points for Niagara while Nelson contributed 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds against just one turnover. Greg Logins had a game-high 20 points for Canisius, hitting 6 of 11 from the field. The rest of the Griffs shot 6 of 38 from the floor.
Niagara a defensive juggernaut? Who could have imagined it?
"I think if any one thing kicked in for us, and all of a sudden it hit us like a ton of bricks, it's that defensively it's not one-on-one, it's a five-on-five game," Mihalich said. "We really learned to help each other more than ever before."