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Quarterfinal loss for Niagara leaves MAAC tourney without top three seeds

ALBANY – They call it parity, but it's also a little bit insane.

The top three seeds in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference were ousted in the quarterfinals this weekend with Niagara the final chip to fall. The third-seeded Purple Eagles dropped a 90-77 decision to No. 6 Fairfield in Times Union Center Saturday night.

It was a massacre on the top seeds that's unusual but not unprecedented in this league. The top three teams were eliminated in the 2002 MAAC tournament as well. That year, Niagara got to the finals, falling to Siena in the championship game.

But the Purple Eagles would be on the wrong side of history in 2018.

The upset came a day after top-seeded Rider lost to No. 9 Saint Peter's and second-seeded Canisius lost to No. 7 Quinnipiac.

But the upsets didn't really provide fuel Fairfield nor a warning for Niagara.

Sydney Johnson, in his seventh season as Fairfield's head coach, said he didn't even look at the seedings until the tournament had already started.

"Don't get me wrong, I watched the end of the game last night and we were aware of Rider getting upset but that doesn't help us any," Johnson said. "We've got to play well. We've got to play hard. We've got to learn from our mistakes and try to keep this thing going. I never talked to them about seedings or standings. My entire coaching career, I don't think that focus on others helps us. We've got to do what we've got to do."

It was a similar sentiment from Niagara coach Chris Casey, although he was more succinct in his dismissal of potentially using the previous nights upsets as a cautionary tale.

"Not a factor in what we talked about," Casey said. "The league's a good league so anybody can be anybody. But to be honest with you I paid more attention to our next upcoming game and tried to get us ready for that. I didn't really pay too much attention to those other games."

Saturday's game started with a bucket by Greg King to give Niagara a 2-0 lead. That lasted for 1:21. Then Fairfield tied it. Then the Stages went ahead. And they would never give up the lead from there.

Almost everything that could go wrong for Niagara in the first half went wrong. They missed shots. They gave up some easy looks. And they struggled without the full services of their two best players.

Matt Scott missed his fourth straight game with an ankle injury while Kahlil Dukes, the Co-Player of the Year in the MAAC, picked up his third foul before halftime.

Combine that with Tyler Nelson dropping 19 of his 27 points in the first half as Fairfield took a 46-34 lead into the break.

The Purple Eagles made a run in the second half, cutting it to six points as Dukes hit a three-pointer with 15:35 left to cut the Stags' lead to 54-48.

But then Dukes picked up his fourth foul, an offensive foul called as he tried to create from the top of the key, with 13:47 left to play. Without Dukes, Niagara could keep pace with Fairfield but not make an offensive run to overcome the double-digit deficit. And without Scott the Purple Eagles couldn't get the stops they needed.

"His leadership on the offensive and defensive end helps us a lot," Dukes said of Scott. "A game like that where we need stops to get back in the game, we could have used him but he wasn't out there. We're not going to make any excuses. We didn't play well enough to win. I didn't play well enough to win. They were the better team today."

Niagara leaves Albany with a 19-13 overall record. They're an outsider for an NIT bid, especially with Rider taking the league's automatic berth by virtue of winning the regular season title and Canisius on the NIT bubble with 21 wins.

But there's a chance for one of the other postseasons to come calling, like the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) and the Postseason Tournament (CIT).

And Casey is hopeful that his time with this particular team isn't finished just yet.

"I think we've had a good enough year where we'll get some type of postseason look. I feel like our season is going to continue," Casey said. The MAAC tournament loss is "difficult to swallow because this is a terrific group. They put a goal forth to win the league. They really, really did a great job of working towards that. You know, sometimes people say things but then their actions don't reflect what it is they're chasing after. Our actions reflected what we were chasing after. Every day. So that makes you completely invested and it makes it tough to swallow."

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