This probably wasn’t like any other game for Greg Paulus.
Sure, he played in places like Cameron Indoor Stadium, Madison Square Garden and Indiana’s Assembly Hall as an All-American point guard at Duke from 2005 to 2009. He also played in venues such as Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field as a quarterback at Syracuse in the fall of 2009.
But he'd never coached a game at Niagara until Monday night, when he made his debut at the Gallagher Center as head coach of the Niagara men’s basketball team.
Maybe, just maybe, Monday was going to be the day the Purple Eagles would get that first win for Paulus, nearly four weeks into his tenure. Bryant, however, spoiled Niagara’s home opener with a 73-62 win against the Purple Eagles.
If Paulus was disappointed with the outcome, he didn’t let on after the loss.
“I’m very proud to be the head coach at Niagara,” Paulus said. “If you have a chance to be a part of this tradition, it’s so rich, and have a chance to lead these young men, I’m so grateful for that. But for me, it’s not about one game. It’s not about me. It’s about our players and trying to develop them, trying to put them into the right situations, the best situations for them to be successful, and for our program to continue moving forward.”
Niagara (0-4) hasn’t won a game since Feb. 27 – an 86-84 win at Canisius – and the first two weeks of the season haven’t been an easy stretch. But Niagara guard James Towns said he’s seen progress in his team, which has five freshmen, including two that played against Bryant.
“As long as we get better, every game, that’s all I care about,” said Towns, who led all scorers with 21 points.
“We’re staying together. We had a big loss at Rutgers. We had a close loss at Stephen F. Austin. We had a loss today, but as long as I feel like we’re getting better and we’re not putting our heads down, and sulking from the losses, I’m happy with the results.”
Monday at the Gallagher Center, Bryant’s inside size outmatched the Purple Eagles early. Despite starting 6-foot-10 freshman Noah Waterman, Niagara couldn’t contend with Bryant center Patrick Harding. At 6-foot-9, 245 pounds, Harding had four of his team’s first six rebounds. Niagara, meanwhile, had four rebounds in that same span.
When Harding went out for Bryant (4-2), 6-foot-7 forward Hall Elisias stepped in. When Elisias went out, SaBastian Townes, a 6-foot-5 forward, stepped in, and the three combined for 12 rebounds in the first half and finished with 22 of Bryant’s 52 rebounds.
“That played some type of factor, because when we didn’t get the rebound, they’d tack it out, but in the second half, we did a good job of limiting them to one shot,” Towns said.
The Purple Eagles trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half and also couldn’t keep up with the Bulldogs’ depth. Bryant’s bench outscored Niagara’s bench 28-6, including 10 points from reserve guard Benson Lin and nine from reserve forward Mikail Simmons.
While the Purple Eagles cut Bryant’s lead to 30-20 on layup by Nick MacDonald and Towns’ layup off a steal after a timeout with less than eight minutes left in the first half, the Bulldogs closed the half on a 13-5 run.
“They did a good job, defensively, mixing up their defensive coverages,” said Paulus, whose team finished 4 for 18 on 3-point attempts, and made only one 3-pointer in the second half. “They’d start off man, then go zone, go zone to man in the middle of a possession and we got stagnant offensively, but that’s a credit to them, mixing up their coverages and having us be on our heels, a little bit.”
The Purple Eagles appeared to find a rhythm when they cut Bryant’s lead to to 45-35 early in the second half. They did it with stronger play on the boards, and by creating scoring chances off transition. Niagara limited Bryant to 31.3 percent (10 for 32) from the floor, including 2 for 17 on 3-point attempts.
But Niagara couldn’t sustain that consistency through the second half, despite cutting Bryant’s lead to nine points four times in the final 3:09: Raheem Solomon’s shot that cut lead to 61-52, Marcus Hammond’s jumper with 1:42 left in regulation that cut it to 63-54, Towns’ jumper 40 seconds later cut Bryant’s lead to 65-56, and Greg Kuakumensah’s layup with 41 seconds left that made it 67-58.
“Our effort was much better defensively in the second half, and we did a better job of keeping them out of transition and I think that was an area our defense helped create opportunities for our offense,” said Paulus, whose team was 11 for 31 from the floor in the first half and 16 for 39 in the second half. “We played with a great deal of energy and some of those plays created a little momentum for us. When you get a little momentum, you turn things a little bit in our favor.”
An athletic department spokesman said Paulus has not yet hired a third assistant on his staff.