Whether the expectations are grand or modest, whether his team is stumbling or surging, coach Joe Mihalich always spends the first three months of the season talking of Niagara' quest for improvement. The key, the coach has said a few hundred times during his tenure, is for the Purple Eagles to be the best team they can be once the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament rolls around.
Having forever carried that mind-set, Mihalich was unruffled when his Purple Eagles started slowly this year. He spoke of how the additions of Malcolm Lemmons (illness) and Josh Turner (academics) would fortify their depth and create new lineup options. He noted the need to develop a greater low-post presence, with Scooter Gillette and Joe Thomas being the obvious candidates. And it would take some time for freshmen Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley to fully acclimate and a chemistry to develop.
It looks like Niagara is starting to get where it hopes to go. Not that young and undermanned Maryland-Baltimore County represented a major challenge Wednesday night at the Gallagher Center. But the Purple Eagles' 92-75 victory was business as they hope it will be, with their sharpshooters on, their depth enhanced and a low-post presence beginning to develop.
Niagara had things all its way over the final 25 minutes and played seven players at least 21 minutes as Turner and Lemmons were on the floor a second straight game. Marvin Jordan led the way with 23 points. Green, the nation's No. 2 freshman scorer, added 21 and five assists. Gillette and Thomas combined for 14 points and nine rebounds. Only seven turnovers were committed, a startlingly low total given Niagara's desire to push on the attack.
"I was telling Joe today at the shoot-around, he's got a nice team," UMBC coach Randy Monroe said. "He's got some young guys, they're trying to figure it all out. He certainly has some guys that can really bomb it from three-point range. That's something we really talked to our guys about. But give Niagara credit. They scored 30 points in the paint, and that was one of our strengths this year."
Niagara's chemistry seems to be coming. The Purple Eagles had 20 assists on their 29 baskets and appeared more inclined to throw an extra pass or two on their possessions.
"We trusted each other with the basketball to make some more plays," said Jordan, who went 6 of 11 from behind the three-point line. "We looked for each other. And we were strong with the basketball."
A shortened bench limited Mihalich during the first semester. Lemmons went out with a case of mono after the opener. Turner needed to become academically eligible. Green and Jordan, a sophomore, both were averaging more than 35 minutes a game.
"We went 11 games without Josh and 10 without Malcolm and we just had to play scared," Mihalich said. "We had to play zone and we had to change defenses and we had to hope guys didn't get in foul trouble and we had to hope guys didn't get tired."
Fatigue was the furthest thing from Niagara's mind as it improved its record to 5-8.
Jordan swished a three from the left wing to open the game and the tone was set. The teams went back and forth at a feverish pace, with UMBC (1-11) of America East launching a 10-0 run, Niagara countering with a 12-0 run and the half ending with five straight Purple Eagles points good for a 52-42 advantage.
Jordan couldn't miss out of the gate. His second three made it 6-0, his third 11-6. But he played the passer instead of the scorer when Niagara, trailing, 38-35, reeled off a dozen straight as Green and Gillette accounted for all the scoring in that burst. Green made a three, scored on a drive and hit a layup off a Jordan steal. Gillette, an inside factor throughout the half, scored consecutive baskets underneath, the first a conventional three-point play and the latter off a nice dish by Turner. The Purple Eagles utilized the pick-and-roll numerous times, with Gillette and Thomas breaking to the basket with conviction after setting screens up top.
They'll see a jump in the level of competition Friday night when St. Bonaventure visits the Gallagher Center.