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Niagara’s high hopes go by the boards

ALBANY – The Niagara Purple Eagles showed Thursday they still have a long way to go to become a quality basketball team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Niagara’s season ended with a blowout loss to Siena, 71-54, in the first round of the MAAC Tournament.

Niagara finished 8-22 and ninth out of 11 in the MAAC.

“I thought a stretch of the first half they really hurt us around the basket, particularly with rebounding the basketball and posting up, and that was the difference in the game,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey.

Niagara ranked last in the MAAC and 330th out of 351 in the country in field-goal percentage defense, allowing conference foes to shoot 46.6 percent. They also were last in the MAAC and 322nd in the country in three-point defense.

Siena exploited both of those weaknesses, hitting 50 percent from the field for the game, played before a crowd of about 3,000 at the Times Union Center. The Saints hit 7 of their first 17 three-point shots in rolling to a 16-point lead early in the second half.

The Purple Eagles need to become more imposing inside.

Siena built its lead off of the lane play of 6-foot-8, 240-pound center Javion Ogunyemi and 6-7 forward Lavon Lang. They combined for 18 points and 11 rebounds and helped Siena build a 22-11 edge on the glass in the first half.

With Niagara forced to help out inside, Siena found plenty of open looks on the perimeter. The Saints made 7 of their first 17 three-point shots.

“They were hurting us a lot around the basket with post-ups,” Casey said. “We tried to help out down around the basket and their guys made open threes.

“We gotta defend better,” Casey said. “We have to continue to add to our roster, and the guys we have have to defend better.”

Niagara had two productive players in the front court this season – 6-8 Dominique Reid and 6-6 Ramone Snowden.

Reid, who made the MAAC all-rookie team, is developing into a sensational offensive threat. He led Niagara with 24 points and showed uncommon touch in making 9 of 15 shots. Over the last nine games, Reid averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds. He still is developing on defense.

“I want to be 10 times better than I was this year,” Reid said. “I want to be better all around, especially on defense, and I want to really enhance my rebounding a lot more and impact the game more than what I did this season. I want to get more wins next season.”

Snowden averaged 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds but managed only 4 and 2, respectively, against Siena. Niagara needs young players like 6-6 James Suber, 6-5 Rayvon Harris and 6-9 DayJar Dickson to develop.

Guard Emile Blackman capped off a fine sophomore season by scoring 13 points, his 13th double-figure outing in the final 15 games.

“They got a lot of offensive rebounds,” Blackman said. “We weren’t really boxing out or crashing as hard as we should have. I think we rebounded a little bit better the second half, but we really dug ourselves a hole with that.”

Siena, the eighth seed, improved to 11-19 and advanced to a meeting Saturday with top-seeded Iona. The Saints held Niagara to just 1 of 11 on three-point shooting.

“They didn’t make threes; we were lucky with that,” said Siena coach Jimmy Patsos. “We worked on defending their threes.”

Niagara, the third youngest team in the nation, graduates no one. It has six freshmen, four sophomores and one junior on scholarship.

“We progressed throughout the season, particularly in the last 10 games,” Casey said. “It’s a starting point, but you have to continue to move forward.”