Would the result have been different had Marvin Jordan made a breakaway layup, or had Javon Moore converted the open follow? Would Niagara have been explaining how it sprung the biggest upset of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season if Anthony Nelson had added the free throw to complete a three-point play and pull the Purple Eagles within two with 3:53 to play?
For the second time in three days, young and undermanned Niagara dealt one of the MAAC's elite teams a shudder. It swung momentum its way and gave the faithful at the Taps Gallagher Center reason to believe late into the second half. But uncashed opportunities and untimely miscues yet again left the Purple Eagles lamenting their lack of finish. A 57-49 loss to Fairfield made it 10 defeats in the last 11 games and 17 on the 21-game-old season.
Close isn't good enough within the confines of the team, but it's commendable from afar given the dire circumstances. The Purple Eagles, playing their fourth straight game without low-post fixture Kashief Edwards, hung in despite being overwhelmed 44-31 on the boards and managing a scant seven offensive rebounds. The temporary loss of Edwards to arthroscopic knee surgery compounded the effects of losing freshman Antoine Mason, their leading scorer at the time, to an early-season stress fracture.
There were games during the last month in which the Purple Eagles appeared resigned that inexperience was making it impossible to complete. They were blown out by 45 at Drexel, 22 at Fairfield, 20 at Saint Peter's and 17 at home to Rider. But Friday's six-point loss to Iona coupled with Sunday's showing indicate Niagara has embraced coach Joe Mihalich's urgings to at least play harder.
"That's a totally different team than we played in Bridgeport a couple weeks ago," said Fairfield coach Ed Cooley. "You can see their younger kids really coming along. They're going to be something to deal with as we get into the MAAC Tournament."
"The good news and the bad news is the same thing, we should have won the game," Mihalich said. "We're here this weekend, we got the two teams tied for first place in here, [and] the bad news is we know we should have won both of those games and we didn't."
Fairfield (15-4, 8-1) lived up to its standing as one of the MAAC's top defensive teams in overcoming offensive struggles caused by Niagara's 2-3 zone. The Purple Eagles had only four assists on their 18 field goals and remained one of the nation's worst three-point shooting teams in going 3 of 16 from behind the arc. Guards Jordan (16 points) and Nelson (14) combined to go just 2 of 10 from three.
Stags guard and scoring leader Derek Needham had similar struggles but struck the decisive blow, a three that put Fairfield up six with 3:18 remaining. He went 2 of 12 and had nine points.
"I felt like I was struggling but anytime I got an open shot in the second half I wanted to shoot it because in the first half I was being tentative and passing and it was messing up the offense," Needham said.
The next step for Niagara? It might be nothing more than developing a sense that victory's within its grasp.
"Here's one thing as a coaching staff we probably got to do a better job of is getting these guys to believe that they really can win, to believe that," Mihalich said. "The teams before, they knew they were going to win. You could see it in their eyes in the huddle. We cut it to three at the end and in years past our guys were like they just knew it, they just knew it. We got to get our guys like that. They don't know how to act that way or to feel that way."