The Gallagher Center was bouncing like a live wire Friday night with Niagara playing on national television on ESPN2 in front of a sellout crowd. The Purple Eagles didn't disappoint.
A standing room only audience of 2,400 that included the legendary Calvin Murphy wearing an all-white suit watched as the Purple Eagles built a 20-point lead in the first half and didn't crumble when visiting Illinois State trimmed that led to six with less than two minutes remaining. Poised and undaunted, Niagara pulled away in the final minute to defeat the Redbirds, 70-56, in a BracketBuster matchup.
Illinois State (22-6) had won its last three games prior to Friday, including its last two over Drake and Wichita State by an average of 18 points. But few teams on the Redbirds' schedule are as quick as Niagara (22-7), which pounced on nearly every loose ball and opened the game firing away from beyond the three-point arc to stun the visitors.
"We really made a statement, we proved we could play with some of the best teams in the country," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "When I shook hands with [Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich] he said, 'You made us look bad tonight.' That's the ultimate compliment."
Junior guard Tyrone Lewis, who played, and beat, Murphy in a pregame challenge of H-O-R-S-E obviously carried over his shooting touch into the game. Lewis scored 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting -- including 3 of 6 from long range -- and also finished with four steals. Junior Bilal Benn scored 10 of his 17 points after halftime and pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds for his 10th double-double of the season.
"We got even more fired up for this game," Benn said. "We stick with what we know and that's defense and rebounding. The momentum from the last game carried over into this one."
The Purple Eagles were coming off a tough 90-87 loss Wednesday at Rider, in which they allowed 50 points in the first half, but this first half was a blur of purple and white.
They went up, 23-8, with 8:27 left in the first half and with less than four minutes remaining, they were up, 35-15, and the Redbirds were dazed.
"They had us sped up faster than what we wanted to," said Illinois State guard Emmanuel Holloway. "They just kept going faster and faster."
It was stunning considering sophomore point guard Anthony Nelson only played three minutes and senior center Benson Egemonye six in the first half because of foul trouble. It didn't matter. Junior Rob Garrison moved over to the point and Kamau Gordon and Kashief Edwards filled in for Egemonye on the blocks.
"If you would have told me before the game that Benson would have played six minutes and Anthony only three I would have said, 'Wow, our guys are going to have to step up,' " Mihalich said. "You're only as strong as your weakest link and our guys coming off the bench are not a weak link."
But Illinois State finally found an offensive rhythm and started trimming into the lead. Niagara's 15-point cushion with 16 minutes left went down to 10 after a jumper by Champ Oguchi. After the Purple Eagles worked it back to 14, Oguchi whistled in back-to-back treys and the lead was 56-48 with 5:56 left. Oguchi managed to get the lead down to six at 62-56 on a layup with 1:43 left but Niagara didn't panic.
"When I look in the huddle and I look at these faces," Mihalich said, "I don't worry."
After a rebound, Illinois State lost Garrison, who broke free for an uncontested layup. Then Benn made 3 of 4 free throws and the lead was back up to 11 points with 52 seconds left. Murphy stood up and motioned to the student section -- all wearing white BracketBuster T-shirts -- to stand up and cheer louder. Game over. Purple Eagles win.
"We just wanted it more than them," Lewis said, "That's what it came down to."