LEWISTON – There’s no other way to put it: Thursday night’s game against Marist was a must-win situation for the Niagara men’s basketball team.
The Red Foxes came into the Gallagher Center in the basement of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, having lost three straight games and 14 out of 15. They were also without their two leading scorers.
Anything less than a Purple Eagles victory would have produced serious questions about the state of Niagara basketball. While it came with some nail-biting moments, the Purple Eagles did get the win they needed, 76-72, in front of 1,163 fans.
“We don’t pay attention to the standings, where we are,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “We’re trying to get better every day and we’re trying to make our team better and our individual players better. We’re trying to get the next win. That’s where we’re at right now as a program and as individuals, so that’s what our focus is.”
Having lost five straight games coming into Thursday and nine of 10, it was fair to wonder when that next win was going to come. When Clarence product Ryan Funk buried a deep three-pointer to put Marist up 57-50 with 9:13 remaining, the Purple Eagles easily could have slipped into panic mode.
Casey used a timeout to prevent that from happening.
“They settled themselves down,” he said of his players. “It wasn’t anything I did. … We made some plays at that point. We keyed it with defense. We didn’t turn the ball over. … I thought they really did a good job of settling themselves down and staying together at a key moment in the game.”
Niagara ran off a 10-1 spurt after Funk’s three-pointer to go ahead, 60-58, with 5:45 left on a pair of free throws from redshirt junior Emile Blackman. Needing 25 points to reach 1,000 for his career, Blackman finished with a game-high 21 for the Purple Eagles.
“We never got too down on each other,” Blackman said of the team’s approach during its losing streak. “We always stayed together. Playing together is what got us this win tonight. … We knew we lost five in a row, but we came with the same approach – ‘we’re going to try and win this one tonight.’ We played together and got the job done.”
With the game tied, 61-61, Niagara reserve Maurice Taylor collected an offensive rebound and scored a put-back layup for the lead with less than 3 minutes to play. On Marist’s ensuing possession, Taylor got a steal, and the Purple Eagles stretched the lead to 66-61 with 2:15 left when Blackman drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key.
“Very big sequence,” Casey said. “That’s what you’ve got to do in these conference games. You’ve got to get stops … and down at the offensive end, you’ve got to get quality possessions and make your open shots.”
Taylor finished with 10 of Niagara’s 14 points off the bench. The Purple Eagles outscored Marist in the paint, 40-28, with freshman Dominic Robb recording a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Matt Scott and Cameron Fowler chipped in 12 points apiece for Niagara, which improved to 7-21 overall and 5-12 in the MAAC.
At the start, it looked like Niagara would have no trouble against a Red Foxes team that was without leading scorers Khallid Hart (21 points per game) and freshman Brian Parker (17 ppg), both of whom were out because of injury. The Purple Eagles led, 12-2, less than 5 minutes into the game.
Marist opened the game 1 of 8 from the field, but managed to hang around, as Niagara’s lead never stretched beyond 11. The Purple Eagles took a 39-34 lead into halftime.
Marist (5-21, 2-15) took its first lead, 46-44, on a mid-range jumper from David Knudsen (team-high 17 points) with just over 15 minutes remaining. From there, the lead would change hands five more times.
Funk, who was a third-team All-Western New York selection with Clarence in 2014, finished with 12 points for the Red Foxes, tying his season high with four three-pointers.
He went cold at the wrong time, however, missing three three-pointers on good looks in the final 3:06 of the game – the first of which came with the score tied, 61-61.