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Niagara can’t overcome sluggish first half

LEWISTON – Opening weekend of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference basketball has come and gone and here’s what we know:

• Iona (2-0) is once again very, very good as evidenced by back-to-back 101-point explosions in resounding wins over Marist and Fairfield.

• The seven teams at 1-1, including Canisius and Niagara, might well find themselves in season-long battles to see who emerges with the rest of the favorable top four seeds for the conference tournament.

Canisius and Niagara experienced life at the far ends of the spectrum on opening weekend. The Griffs shot up the Koessler Athletic Center in beating Monmouth on Friday night, then on Saturday fell to a Quinnipiac team Niagara had beaten the night before. The Purple Eagles got back at it Sunday and, after shooting 57 percent against Quinnipiac, slogged through a ghastly 5-for-21 first-half performance in a 56-42 loss to Monmouth at the Taps Gallagher Center.

Deciphering the upper-middle teams in the MAAC from the lower-middle teams is typically an arduous, season-long process. What seems true one day is proved false the next as so-called lesser teams knock off those of higher repute.

“It’s so funny because it’s a 20-game deal. Twenty games,” said Monmouth coach King Rice, the former North Carolina point guard. “And what happens with that, we don’t change a lot from year to year. So when I call a play,” the whole opposing bench “stands up and says, ‘They’re doing this.’ And then after you’ve been in the league a few times, you know a guy’s tendencies, how he’s going to try to get you, what he’s going to do, and it just makes for a grind-out league.”

“Grind” was the defining word of Monmouth’s victory over the Purple Eagles. Rice said he was hard on his team in the aftermath of the loss at Canisius, a game in which the Hawks allowed the Griffs to dictate tempo by playing less-than-dedicated defense. Meanwhile, coach Chris Casey’s team might have been feeling pretty good about itself after the win over Quinnipiac only to find Monmouth, which has received votes in the national polls, taking the floor with a chip on its shoulder.

Niagara (3-6) just wasn’t up to the intensity of the moment, at least not in the first half. It treated the basketball with disdain, turning it over 10 times, and seemed put off by Monmouth’s determination to contest every shot. A 15-point half in today’s game against a conference foe? Almost unheard of.

The Purple Eagles stabilized after intermission but the damage was done. Monmouth (5-3) owned a 27-15 halftime edge and the lead remained double digits the rest of the way.

“We have to be better offensively,” Casey said. “Too many turnovers. And against a team like that that’s a good team, when you get some open ones you got to make them, and when you get some free throws you got to make them.”

Niagara’s most productive offensive players, Matt Scott and Emile Blackman, had particularly tough afternoons. Blackman, who averages 14.8, scored 14 but turned it over six times. Scott, who averages 17.6, managed just eight points on 4-of-13 from the field and turned it over nine times.

Casey has a point when he says there’s no laying this egg at the feet of his premier scorers. Niagara missed 16 first-half field-goal attempts yet managed just one offensive rebound – a Dominic Robb putback late in the half.

The Purple Eagles are the norm – a team with work to do.

With 18 games left, “we’ll have to see how it plays out,” Casey said. “But I do know that every one of them will be a battle, because they always are.”