LEWISTON – Quinnipiac coach Baker Dunleavy brought a plan into the Gallagher Center to shut down Niagara’s Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott, who entered the game as the MAAC’s second and third-leading scorers. It worked.
What Dunleavy didn’t expect was how badly his team would still lose.
Niagara’s role players stepped up in a big way Thursday, powering the Purple Eagles to a 95-76 win that moved them into a tie for third place in the conference with five games to go. James Towns took over with 26 points off the bench while freshman Keleaf Tate scored a career-high 15 – all in the first half, all on three-pointers – and Kevin Larkin added 12.
Niagara’s offensive performance was impressive to Dunleavy, who spent the better part of the last decade as an assistant at Villanova before taking the head job at Quinnipiac. Villanova has qualified for the NCAA Tournament five years in a row and won a national championship in 2016.
After seeing the Purple Eagles threaten to reach triple-digits while he limited their best scorers, Dunleavy said Niagara has the firepower to win a conference tournament, even if its defense isn’t great.
“Everybody says defense wins championships, you know, but I think it takes great balance,” Dunleavy said. “Most leagues, you’ll see [championship] teams that, at least, if they’re not the top in both categories, they’ll be somewhere near the middle in one or the other. I think in terms of a three-game stretch, a team that can score like that can certainly win the tournament. But we’ve been through it at Villanova where, at times, you’re relying on threes. We took some early exits because of that. So, I think it’s wild no matter what when you deal with just one-game scenarios. So, this is definitely a team that’s good enough to go all the way through, there’s no doubt about that.”
Niagara entered the game 25th nationally in scoring (82.8 ppg) but 338th in scoring defense (84.0), while its minus-1.2 margin ranked 194th. It also ranked poor in field-goal percentage defense (271st), three-point defense (316th) and rebounding percentage (214th). But man, can Chris Casey’s team put the ball in the bucket.
Dukes and Scott, who were one of only two duos in the country to each average over 20 points per game, were held to 12 and 11 points, respectively. The team still shot 56.3 percent from the field and hit 12 of 23 three-pointers while topping 80 points for the 18th time this season, even while getting to the free-throw line six fewer times than usual.
“All those guys were confident shooting the ball,” said Dunleavy, whose father, Mike, was a longtime NBA coach and whose brother Mike Jr. played 15 years in the league. “I think when you come in and play a good team like this, you have to take some calculated risks. And obviously Dukes and Scott are two of the best players in the league, so you have some choices to make. We really focused on them in preparation, and then you hope if you contest shots on the other guys, maybe you get a break and they miss some shots, but credit to them, they stepped up. Great confidence.”
Speaking of confidence, how’s this for a heat check? Dukes even broke a program record Thursday night that was held by legend Calvin Murphy. Dukes entered the game eighth nationally in free-throw percentage at 91.3 and had made 27 in a row, which was tied with Murphy’s record set in the 1969-70 season. Dukes improved his mark to 31 straight by going 4 for 4 Thursday. (Murphy later set the NBA record in 1980-81 with 78 straight makes, though it has been passed since.)
“He won’t be happy about that,” Dukes joked, “but that’s a good thing.”
Niagara (16-10 overall, 9-4 MAAC) has a big game at Iona (9-4) next Friday and faces Canisius (10-2) again, but the remaining three teams on its schedule currently have losing records in the conference – including Fairfield, which visits Niagara at 3 p.m. Saturday. Casey didn’t want to talk about his team’s outlook going forward, but he believes his players are buying in and coming together at the right time.
"A real team win,” he said. “I mean, I could go down the list and mention names. James, off the bench, his performance. Kevin in only his second start. Keleaf was unbelievable in that first half, and you need minutes from him when Matt was in foul trouble. Greg Kaukumensah was terrific, especially in that first half. We talk about all the time, you need every guy, and you need every guy to be ready particularly this time of year. I think a bunch of guys are embracing that, and it was evident."