LEWISTON – The Niagara Purple Eagles hold the longest winning streak among teams headed to this week’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament.
Niagara won its fourth straight game Sunday, overcoming a dismal shooting effort to sneak out of the Gallagher Center with a 57-56 victory over Fairfield.
“I thought the best thing we did today was stay with it and grind it out,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “That’s what we talked about in every huddle. There are some games where you just gotta stick with it and grind it out until you get what you want.”
The Purple Eagles shot just 19 of 52 (36.5 percent) from the floor – one game after hitting 60 percent shots in a victory over crosstown rival Canisius to set the MAAC single-game best for the season. But a pair of free throws by freshman guard Matt Scott with 22.4 seconds left gave Niagara the lead.
Fairfield had a chance to win it, but guard Steve Johnston couldn’t connect on a three-pointer in the dying seconds. The win gave Niagara the No. 9 seed for the MAAC Tournament. The Eagles will play No. 8 Siena in the first round at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Times Union Center in Albany.
“Everybody’s got the same record now,” Casey said. “I think there are a number of teams that have a chance to win the tournament, so we’ll go in and play hard and give it our best effort.”
Scrappiness is a trait the Purple Eagles will have to rely on in the postseason. They showed a willingness to play that way Sunday in front of 1,326 for the home finale, outscoring the bigger Stags, 26-10, in the paint. Thanks to a 15-8 edge in offensive rebounds, Niagara outscored Fairfield in second-chance points, 16-0.
Much of the credit for that goes to 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman forward Dominique Reid. He led the Purple Eagles (8-21 overall, 7-13 MAAC) with 16 points and 10 rebounds, his team-high fifth double-double of the season. Reid has perhaps the toughest job of any Niagara player. He consistently gives up at least a couple of inches to whomever he’s guarding, but is expected to provide Niagara with an offensive and rebounding presence.
“If I were to use one word to describe Dom, it’s competitor,” Casey said. “He doesn’t like to lose, and more importantly, in the game within the game, he does not like his individual matchup to get the better of him.”
Reid’s dunk with 2:10 left, when he used a head fake, then waited for a pair of Fairfield defenders to fly by, gave Niagara a 55-54 lead.
“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder,” Reid said. “When I was 13 or 14, I used to play AAU with 16- or 17-year-olds, so I’m kind of immune to it now, playing against guys who are taller than me.”
A driving layup by Jerome Segura put the Stags back up, 56-55, with 40 seconds left.
With a chance to run the clock down, Niagara worked the ball around the perimeter until Scott was fouled.
“They’re very good around the basket of walling up sometimes, and they’re big, so rather than try to jam it inside … we wanted to get the ball moving side to side,” Casey said. “Turn corners on ball screens, turn corners on handoffs, if you get to the lane, pass below or attack the basket. And that’s what Matt did. He turned the corner, and he made the guy foul him.”
Scott finished with 11 points, while guard Wesley Myers added 13 – a welcome contribution given that Niagara leading scorer Emile Blackman (13.8 points per game) was held to just seven points on 2-of-12 shooting.
“He was another one who stayed with it,” Casey said of Myers. “He had to kind of come in and out a little bit. I took him out with three fouls, I think he ended up with three fouls. So his maturity showed through. He was able to play without fouling, so he did some really good things.”
Fairfield (7-23, 5-15), which went 11 of 26 from three-point range, was led by Marcus Gilbert, who matched Reid with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“We were fortunate, we made one more play than the other team and won the game,” Casey said. “We want to enjoy it for today, then we get back to work, because the next one comes at you fast.”