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Niagara women beat Manhattan in MAAC tourney

ALBANY – The two all-star players on the Niagara University women’s basketball team combined to shoot 5 of 28 from the field Thursday afternoon.

Niagara won anyway.

That’s all that mattered to the Purple Eagles after their 57-51 triumph over Manhattan in the first round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament.

“It was a hard fought game,” Niagara coach Kendra Faustin said. “Manhattan did some things they hadn’t done all year, playing us primarily man. I didn’t think we played particularly well, but we’re excited by the big plays we made down the stretch.”

Niagara, the sixth seed, improved to 14-16 and advanced to a quarterfinal playoff game against third-seeded Fairfield at 9:30 p.m. Friday.

Niagara’s regular-season conference record of 9-11 didn’t quite meet its expectations, even though it included a big win at MAAC juggernaut Marist and a near upset of regular-season champion Quinnipiac.

But the Purple Eagles have a chance to define their season this week. They beat Fairfield (14-15) twice in the regular season.

“The season was a little up and down for us, but the MAAC Tournament is a brand new season,” Niagara senior guard Meghan McGuinness said. “We’ve shown flashes of how great we can be. Great teams win when it matters. If we can do that in the tournament we can really show who we are.”

Niagara found itself in a tight game against last-place Manhattan (3-27) due to poor shooting. Both teams shot an identical 19 of 58 (32.8 percent) from the field.

Niagara’s McGuinness and sophomore forward Victoria Rampado both made second-team all-MAAC. McGuinness, the 10th-leading scorer in Niagara history, averaged 12.6 points a game. Rampado averaged 12.9.

Rampado made just 3 of 17 field-goal attempts against Manhattan. McGuinness made 2 of 11.

McGuinness went 29 minutes without a basket but hit a critical three-pointer with 4:45 left to give Niagara a 46-40 cushion.

“Relief,” McGuinness said of her reaction. “My teammates and coaches told me to keep shooting even though I was having an off night, which happens. I just had to stay confident. Once that went in, it just felt great.”

In the next three minutes, Niagara got a driving basket and a three-pointer from Sylvia Watson and a rebound put-back from Donisha Watson to seal the victory.

“We made big plays at big times,” Faustin said. “Sylvia Maxwell had a great basket out of our triangle action for a layup. Donesha Watson had a huge offensive rebound and one and made the free throw. Meg made that three. In the last five minutes we scored when it mattered.”

That’s what matters most in March.