LEWISTON – Chris Casey wasted little time reaching for a response Saturday when he was asked about the state of his program. Niagara had showed subtle signs of progress, but progress nonetheless, over the past two weeks after losing four straight and falling to 5-14 with a loss to Monmouth.
“We’ve got to keep guys here,” Casey said.
Casey has endured more than most coaches should over his three-plus seasons at Niagara, starting with the thankless job of replacing a respected coach. Joe Mihalich built a solid program over his 15 seasons. He won four conference titles and twice guided Niagara into the NCAA Tournament.
Mihalich left for a new challenge and considerably more money at Hofstra. He also unintentionally led a parade leaving Niagara. Three players joined him at his next stop while a fourth, T.J. Cline, split for Richmond. In all, the exodus included 20 players who walked out the door for one reason or another in his first three years.
Leading scorer Emile Blackman bolted after last season, citing a lack of exposure among his reasons. What, did he fear NBA teams would overlook his 15.8 points per game average in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, only to discover him at Duquesne? His rationale, while ludicrous, was a blow to Niagara.
The departures have been Casey’s primary and most persistent issue during his tenure on Monteagle Ridge. He was 22-73 before this year, never winning more than eight games in any season. He appeared to have the makings of a capable coach, but it was impossible to know while he played against a stacked deck.
Finally, we’re seeing a glimpse of what can happen when he has the right players in place and some semblance of continuity. Niagara pushed through a sloppy start and reaffirmed it was a team on the rise with an 80-67 victory over Rider before 1,295 fans in the Gallagher Center.
“You’ve got to be able to get carryover from year to year,” Casey said “It’s important. They go through the wars and know what to expect. They get bigger, stronger, faster. They mature. They get more time with each other, and they know each other. All those things are important. We’re seeing it. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Let’s move forward without getting too far ahead. They’re 8-15 overall this season and 5-7 in the MAAC, a long away from challenging the best teams in the conference. But with eight games remaining in the regular season, the Purple Eagles already matched Casey’s highest, albeit modest, win total.
The Purple Eagles, teetering on the edge of the Falls three weeks ago, are relevant again and offering reasons for optimism. They have won three of their last four, including a convincing win over Canisius. They’re two shots – an overtime loss to Marist on Jan. 16 and a one-point defeat to Manhattan on Thursday – from winning five straight.
“If you watch us from the beginning of the year and watch us now, there’s significant improvement,” Casey said. “We’re all learning to get better, and we’re all learning how to win.”
Their record aside, the Purple Eagles showed signs Saturday of a team going in the right direction. They gathered themselves after a sloppy start. They grabbed the lead in the second half and withstood a surge from Rider. They finished the game with a 24-9 run and made 12 straight free throws down the stretch.
“One of the things we talk about a lot, and (Casey) mentions a lot is being poised, having no excuses and holding each other accountable,” said junior guard Kahlil Dukes. “If we’re out there on the court, we have to be able to make plays and trust each other to make plays. Tonight, we were able to do that.”
Trust is difficult to build when players walk through the revolving door of an unstable program. Casey had only six returning players who appeared in a game for Niagara last season. He started three sophomores and two juniors Saturday. The only senior on the roster is Maurice Taylor, who was terrific on defense in the second half and grabbed a key rebound late in the game.
Niagara’s winning margin was misleading. The Purple Eagles led, 63-62, with 2:20 remaining before closing with a 17-5 run. Three weeks ago at Rider, they were tied, 65-65, with 8:49 remaining before the Broncs pulled away with a 12-0 outburst. The game was close again Saturday before Niagara ran Rider out of the building.
“Chris is doing a good job coaching those guys,” Rider coach Kevin Baggett said. “Those guys made shots. They stepped up and made free throws when they needed them. Our guys aren’t doing that. My seniors are struggling to help me right now.”
It was no coincidence the players who came through Saturday, against Rider team that started three seniors and a graduate student, were guys who had the most experience.
Junior Matt Scott’s three-pointer gave Niagara a 68-62 lead with 1:33 remaining. He made four free throws in the final minute and scored a game-high 18 points. Niagara’s only three-year starter now has 1,009 points in his career.
Dominic Robb, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, is a competitive workhorse inside who understands his role and stays within the confines of his ability. He had four blocked shots in the first 13 minutes against Rider. Sophomores Chris Barton, Kevin Larkin and Marvin Prochet made critical plays at various times in the second half.
Niagara has a stable foundation after it was shaken from its moorings. The finish was the mark of a team gaining experience and learning how to push through close games after crumbling earlier in the season. The Purple Eagles should improve with maturity over the next two years.
There was a sense Saturday that Niagara is just getting started. Why would anyone want to leave now?