If there was one play that epitomized the tenacity that Niagara brought to the floor against Siena Friday night, it occurred with just over eight minutes left in the first half. Purple Eagles backup forward Kashief Edwards, a red-shirt freshman who plays the game with a perpetual scowl, became entangled with Siena backup guard Kyle Downey while battling for a rebound. The whistle blew, signaling a jump ball, but Edwards still had fuel in his tank.
He ripped the ball away from Downey, drawing a caution from an official that flamed his ire all the more. When Edwards complained to the referee, Bilal Benn intervened, determined to prevent his younger teammate from picking up a technical. The two Purple Eagles went chest to chest, Edwards still voicing his displeasure, before Benn finally steered him toward the bench.
Assistant coach Phil Martelli Jr., smiling widely, came out to meet Edwards and, presumably, try and calm him. But the expression on Edwards' face never softened as he strode around Martelli and into the team huddle, still nothing but business.
And for this empathic display of passion Edwards had one simple explanation: "I just didn't want him to get the basketball."
That's the defiant attitude that Niagara brought into the Gallagher Center for their nationally televised regular-season rematch with the Saints. Siena had won the first meeting by 17 on Jan. 24, making it seven straight wins over the Purple Eagles in the regular season. With the Metro Atlantic Conference Tournament once again in Albany this year, on Siena's home floor, it figured that Niagara had to prove itself a worthy adversary in the event of a rematch in the finals. A 100-85 triumph before a boisterous sellout crowd did wonders in that regard.
"Clearly a statement win for us," coach Joe Mihalich said. "We had to prove to ourselves that we could beat one of the best teams in this league and we just beat the best team in the league."
There were some notable differences between this game and the first meeting between the clubs. Mihalich has cultivated depth along the front line and no longer gives away much when Edwards or Kamau Gordon spells 6-foot-10 Benson Egemonye. The three combined for 30 points and 10 rebounds at the center position, more than offsetting the 17-point night by Siena big man Ryan Rossiter. The 6-6 Edwards, tapped from Mihalich's Philadelphia pipeline, produced 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocks in a 17 hard-played minutes.
It wasn't only at the "5" spot that Niagara achieved an inside dominance. All the Purple Eagles showed a genuine determination to get the ball into the paint, which explains how it shot 52 percent on the night. Point guard Anthony Nelson had one of his more assertive games, looking to finish off drives instead of settling for disrupting defenses with lane penetration. Benn again was a terror underneath, striking for 21 points and 12 rebounds. All told, Niagara outscored Siena, 58-36, on the inside, and by 28-13 on second-chance points.
Difference No. 3, and perhaps the biggest one of all, was the play of Niagara Falls native Rob Garrison. The junior transfer from UConn scored 13 of his 19 points in the first half as the Purple Eagles rolled to a 17-point advantage. He contributed five assists and four rebounds. And although Benn and Tyrone Lewis typically draw raves for their "D", Garrison's quickness produced one of the game's key defensive plays, forcing a carrying violation on Kenny Hasbrouck with the Saints on the fast break down seven with 4:14 remaining.
"I just wanted to come out and be aggressive," Garrison said. "The last time we played Siena I wasn't much of a factor. I felt like I was just on the court. I vowed to not let that happen this game, so I just came out aggressive and confident and I think my confidence helped."
Mihalich is right, this was a statement victory. Siena is ranked 23rd in the RPI. The Saints had lost just once since a seven-point defeat at Kansas back on Jan. 6. This was their largest margin of defeat on the season.
Can Niagara take them one more time? If it gets the chance it'll be in the MAAC finals, with an NCAA bid on the line.