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Jerry Sullivan: Niagara, Canisius sprint into MAAC quarterfinals

ALBANY -- Two years ago, a young Niagara team came here as the hottest squad in the league, the chic pick to surprise. Then they laid an egg in their first game. So much for the importance of momentum.

The Purple Eagles, who were on a five-game losing skid, proved again on Thursday that streaks mean little in March. Getting a big performance from its kids, Niagara erupted for 59 points after halftime in a 88-69 win over Quinnipiac in the pre-quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament at the Times Union Center.

Canisius reaffirmed the theory later in the evening, holding off Marist, 77-73, in the other pre-quarterfinal. The seventh-seeded Griffs, who lost their last three games to blow a first-round bye, overcame a porous defensive interior to give Reggie Witherspoon his first MAAC tourney win.

Niagara's performance was inelegant at times, but at this point in their histor any March win looks like a masterpiece. They'll need to play well for 40 minutes against top seed Monmouth in Friday's quarterfinal to pull an upset, but this was a sign of progress.

It should help this young group to get a post-season tourney win, and to do it with some of Chris Casey's young players breaking out at a crucial time.

"I was really proud of our togetherness and connection on the court tonight," Casey said. "I thought we really focused in and did a good job of playing together on both ends of the floor."

It was Casey's first tourney win with all his own recruits, giving him his first 10-win season in four years at Niagara. He has his top nine scorers back next season, assuming they stay. In all, 23 players have transferred since Casey took over for Joe Mihalich in 2013.

But if they all stick around, Casey might finally be on to something. He predicted that defense and rebounding would be the keys in Albany. The Eagles held Quinnipiac to 38.7 percent shooting and outrebounded the Bobcats, 44-32.

It's offense that defines them, however, and it was a disjointed mess in the first half. Kahlil Dukes, their second-leading scorer, was 0-for-10 from the field at one point. But in the second half, the Eagles looked like the team that swept Canisius this year, topping 90 points both times.

That five-game losing streak was a distant memory when the Purple Eagles ran the Bobcats out of the building in the second half. It was especially encouraging to see a couple of youngsters in the middle of it

Chris Barton, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Pontiac, Mich., equaled his career high with 15 points, 13 in the second half. James Towns, a 5-10 freshman from Detroit, scored 14 points, all after halftime, in just 13 minutes.

The Eagles led, 56-53, when Towns nailed a three-pointer to put them up six. After Dukes scored on a drive, Towns drove for a layup to give Niagara its biggest lead, 63-53. Then he hit another three to stretch the lead to 13 points.

"We had to grind it out," said junior guard Matt Scott, who had 19 points, seven rebounds and three steals. "We wanted to rebound and play team basketball and get out in transition, and that's what we did."

It qualifies as progress, which has become a low bar at Niagara. It seems ages ago that Joe Mihalich's teams made routine runs to the semifinals and won a couple of league championships. Their last title was 10 years ago.

A win Friday against No. 1 seed Monmouth, which has won 16 in a row, would be a huge achievement, and the biggest March upset by either of our MAAC teams in 15 years. Neither of our schools has beaten a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the MAAC quarterfinals since Canisius beat No. 1 seed Rider in 2002.

Canisius, which plays No. 2 seed St. Peter's at 9:30 p.m. Friday, has won just one quarterfinal game since that day in '02, when Brian Dux willed them into OT and Hodari Mallory banked in the winning shot.

So getting to the semifinals would be a significant step for Witherspoon, whose team was expected to struggle in his first season but got off to a surprisingly good start and upset both UB and St. Bonaventure in December.

"It would be huge for the program," Witherspoon said, "and huge for our seniors to be able to say, 'We were part of the class that took another step'. But it will be a big challenge, and one we're up for."

Niagara, meanwhile, hopes to hang with Monmouth and show that Thursday wasn't simply a front-running win over one of the worst defensive teams in America. It can be a game to build on, but success -- and continuity -- can be tough to sustain at the mid-major level, as Casey learned through all the transfers.

"Continuity is very important," Casey said. "We had some turnover. I thought we handled it well. There can be positives out of turnover and the positive is the group we have together right now. This is an outstanding group, a group with a lot of potential, a group to build around and that can take further steps.

"It's incumbent on them to do what they did today, which is stay together. Together, they can accomplish things."



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