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Youthful Eagles wilt in tournament spotlight

ALBANY – Time and again this season, we were reminded that Niagara had the third-youngest Division I team in the country. On Thursday, when the biggest moment of the season arrived, the Purple Eagles certainly showed their age.

The Purple Eagles played like a bunch of skittish, inexperienced kids, getting soundly outclassed by Siena, 71-54, in the prequarterfinal round of the MAAC Tournament at the Times Union Center.

Niagara was supposed to be a live underdog here. They had won four games in a row, the longest active streak in the league, leading MAAC observers to wonder if Chris Casey’s collection of freshmen and sophomores was capable of making a surprise run in the tourney.

This shows you how little momentum can mean at conference tournament time. Siena, the host school, had lost its last five regular-season games. Judging by the modest crowd in attendance, the customarily rabid Albany fans had written this team off as a non-factor.

On the contrary, Siena coach Jimmy Patsos had the Eagles right where he wanted them.

“Niagara won four in a row and you know what? That helped our team,” Patsos said. “When I said ‘We’re playing Niagara, who we beat twice,’ they said, ‘Yeah, yeah. yeah.’ Then I go, ‘They won four in a row,’ and that got the attention of everyone in our locker room.

“So that’s your answer right there.”

The Eagles had few answers for the Saints, who took an early lead with three straight layups and never looked back. Siena shot 50 percent from the field – 58 percent from two-point range. Niagara, which finished second in the MAAC in three-point shooting, was 1 for 11 from behind the arc.

With Siena extending its defense to the perimeter, Niagara kept forcing the ball into double teams in the low post, only to get its shots rejected. The Purple Eagles were slow to get back on defense, allowing the Saints to beat them down the floor on numerous occasions for easy transition hoops.

That’s a sure formula for defeat against a well-coached, veteran opponent that knows how to respond to tournament pressure. It’s been a familiar sight through the years, watching Western New York teams get exploited in the low post in March.

Oh, Niagara has talent. Dominique Reid, a 6-8 freshman who was recruited by higher leagues in high school, had 24 points and nine rebounds. He’ll be a star in the MAAC. Emile Blackman, a sophomore guard, is one of the most versatile players in the league and a bright, thoughtful leader for a young team.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be a championship contender down the road.

I’ve seen promising young teams that made huge leaps as they got older, like John Beilein’s first Canisius teams and UB’s team with Turner Battle. But I also recall Tom Parrotta’s ballyhooed freshman class that never got appreciably better over four years.

Time will tell if Niagara’s kids are pure basketball players or merely athletes. Your secondary guys must come through at tourney time. Casey got two points from his bench. His point guards were badly outplayed by Siena senior Evan Hymes, who had 14 points and five steals.

Casey has everybody back next year. But when pressed about his problems with defense and rebounding, he said one of his objectives was to improve his roster. He has two scholarships to give. He needs a legitimate center, even if it means dipping into the junior college ranks.

But to his credit, Casey has built a solid core in a short period of time. The cupboard was nearly bare when he took over for Joe Mihalich in the spring of 2013.

Mihalich took two of his top players with him to Hofstra. Another, T.J. Cline, transferred to Richmond. Antoine Mason stayed for one season, led the nation in scoring, and moved on to Auburn for his final year of college eligibility.

Eight of the dozen players on this year’s roster had never played in a Division I game when the season began. The results were predictable.

But the Eagles improved over the season’s final month, even if they came crashing to earth in the MAAC tourney.

Casey has a good leader in Blackman, who accompanied him from Division II when he left LIU Post for Monteagle Ridge. Blackman, the nephew of former NBA star Mark Jackson, has proved himself at the D-I level. He said this disappointment will serve as a useful reminder of how far this team has yet to go.

“People talk about us being young,” said Blackman, a communications major. “It’s no excuse. We’re all basketball players, some better than others. But next year, having a little experience will definitely help us. It will show us where we need to improve, what we need to do better, how we need to enhance our focus.”

Reid, a gifted forward who often has to function as an undersized center on this team, seemed to have his focus already trained on 2015-16.

“We just got to get in the gym and work harder,” Reid said. “I’ll be thinking about this game until next November, and my coach and teammates will be, too.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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