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Niagara sends message MAAC leader Siena appears susceptible

At the end, after Niagara hit the century mark, nearly everyone in the Gallagher Center lifted their index fingers in the air and started waving. Next came the serenades toward Siena of, "This is our house," and, "Overrated."

Niagara enthusiastically embraced a moment it could very well relive in the upcoming Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament. There was cause for celebration after the Purple Eagles clinched the No. 2 seed for next week's MAAC Tournament by toppling Siena, the tournament's top seed, 100-85, in front of a sellout crowd of 2,400.

In a potential preview of the MAAC championship game, Niagara (23-7, 13-4) viewed the game as a litmus test and a prep for postseason play. From the beginning the Purple Eagles played with a passion usually reserved for March, racing to a 19-point lead against the Saints, who had lost just one game previously in league play.

If Siena (22-7, 15-2), the host team for the tournament, seemed borderline invincible heading into the postseason, Niagara proved otherwise.

"We made a statement by letting them know that no one is going to lay down, that we're going to come out here and play as hard as anyone else," said junior guard Bilal Benn.

Siena played Tennessee, Wichita State, Oklahoma State and defending national champion Kansas among others, yet it was the Purple Eagles who handed the Saints their worst loss of the season.

"They were ready to play from the opening tip," said Siena coach Fran McCaffery. "They jumped us pretty good."

Niagara, winners of nine of its last 10, received a little bit of something from everyone against Siena. Six players finished in double figures starting with Benn's 21 points, 12 rebounds and three steals, a performance coach Joe Mihalich noted as worthy of first-team all-conference consideration.

Junior guard Rob Garrison caught fire early and finished with 19 points, five assists and four rebounds, while sophomore point guard Anthony Nelson had 11 points, eight assists and no turnovers in 38 minutes. Centers Benson Egemonye, Kamau Gordon and Kashief Edwards combined for 30 points and 10 rebounds, as the Purple Eagles outscored Siena, 58-36, in the paint and outrebounded the Saints, 44-37. They won with leading scorer Tyrone Lewis taking just four shots, but he made all 10 of his free throws and finished with 12 points.

"To beat them, you have to have everything clicking and fortunately for us, we did," Mihalich said.

Defensively, Niagara held Saints leading scorer Kenny Hasbrouck to five points and a horrid 2-of-20 shooting night.

"It starts with our defense, that's been the key for us all year," Nelson said. "Playing good defense gives us more enthusiasm on offense, it gives us more energy."

Indeed, Niagara's intensity was on another level from the start. Niagara led, 48-31, at the half behind Garrison's 13 points and Benn's 10.

In the second half, Mihalich's fear of Siena marching to the free-throw line came true and the Saints began to peck away at Niagara's lead, trimming it to seven with 4:04 left after a layup by Alex Franklin. But after Nelson missed a three-pointer, Benn followed up the miss for a basket.

McCaffery was hit with a technical foul with 2:39 left for shaking the scorer's table and knocking over a cup of water. Lewis hit the two foul shots for the technical, and two more after being fouled and Niagara led, 90-77.

That's when the Gallagher Center started celebrating a well-deserved victory for the Purple Eagles. Anyone for a rematch?

"I'd like to be playing in the finals," McCaffery said. "Whether I want to see them or not, we'll see."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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