LEWISTON -- It's probably a stretch to say the Gallagher Center never hopped like it did for Friday night's BracketBuster matchup between Niagara and Illinois State. The place opened in 1949. Some pretty good teams and exceptional players have taken the floor in those 60 years. You have to think the joint buzzed like a bee hive when Calvin Murphy was dumping 30 or 40 on some mystified opponent, as he did, oh, just about every time out.
But one has to wonder whether since Calvin's departure the Gallagher Center has reached the frenzied level the sellout crowd of 2,400 achieved on this cold winter's night. The student section was filled an hour before tipoff, bizarre dress prevalent in the quest for ESPN2 air time. Murphy, resplendent in a white suit, led the section in its trademark roller-coaster cheer during one of the media timeouts. The crowd lull that typically sets in as the game progresses never hit until very late in the first half. And what a half it was as Niagara blitzed the Redbirds with a 17-2 run that stood as the foundation for its 70-56 victory.
"We've had some great nights, and I'm sure there were some others that would rival this, but not off the top of my head," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. "To do this, and it may sound a little corny, but to do this on this campus, sold-out building, national TV, just for everybody to be part of this . . ."
I've never been a big fan of the BracketBuster series. The games tend to penalize mid-major teams more than they assist their quest to land, if necessary, an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They're not games that distinguish teams so much as games that eliminate teams. Illinois State's chances of gaining an at-large berth lessened more than Niagara's improved as a result of Friday's outcome.
But I've come to the conclusion that what the games mean to the national tournament picture is of secondary concern. It's a treat to see two quality programs from distant conferences meet up late in the season instead of in the campaign's early going, when coaches are still sorting out minutes and rotations and teams are establishing their identities. We knew Niagara was good. Yet it was natural to wonder how the Purple Eagles, 21-7 coming in, might stack up against a 22-5 Illinois State team that sits third in the Missouri Valley Conference, a game behind co-leaders Northern Iowa and Creighton. The MVC has become somewhat of a mid-major measuring stick, putting 23 teams in the NCAAs over the last 10 years.
Given the circumstances, and the national exposure, Niagara yearned to make a statement, and the Purple Eagles made it loud and clear. Illinois State shot 30.8 percent from the field, about 14 percent under its season average, while scoring just 23 first-half points. Champ Oguchi, who scored a team-high 19 points for Illinois State, conceded that the Redbirds were confounded by Niagara's quickness, which produced 15 steals and forced 16 turnovers.
"It came down to who wanted it more," said Niagara guard Tyrone Lewis, who scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the first half. "We got more loose balls. Balls falling out of bounds, we were getting them. I think it came down to who just wanted it more. I don't think we were that much faster."
They must play non-contact basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference because Niagara found itself in foul trouble from the outset as the MVC crew jumped on even the most minor transgressions. Purple Eagles point guard Anthony Nelson, who averages just over two fouls a game, was glued to the bench after picking up his second with 16:59 left in the first half. A little more than nine minutes remained when center Benson Egemonye suffered the same fate. Incredibly, their absence went virtually unnoticed until Illinois State fought back late in the half.
It was an empowering victory for the Purple Eagles, an affirmation of their capabilities. Next Friday they get another shot at Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Siena and its 31 RPI. Then they finish against an average Marist team that drilled them by 18 back in early January.
"I told our team yesterday that we're the luckiest team in America to have the finishing schedule that we have," Mihalich said. "We're going to play a great team at home [in Illinois State]. Then we're going to play the team that everybody says is the best team in the league. Then we're going to play a team that knocked us off earlier. So to finish the season with those three games, what better way to get ready for the MAAC Tournament?"