Greg Paulus is a little hesitant to say if late-game heroics are becoming a standard for the Niagara men’s basketball team.
Yet less than 48 hours after the Purple Eagles defeated Rider on Marcus Hammond’s buzzer-beater, they earned a 72-71 win against Siena on account of a goaltending call against the Saints with less than a minute left in regulation.
Sunday at the Gallagher Center, Niagara guard Raheem Solomon shot a reverse layup, off a pass by Hammond from the top of the key. Manny Camper swatted at the basket and caught the backboard as the shot went up, and officials called Camper for the violation with 44.9 seconds left and awarded Niagara a 2-point basket. The call broke a 68-68 tie, and Shandon Brown hit a pair of free throws with 13.2 seconds left to open Niagara’s lead to 72-68.
“I was able to read the defender, and usually, that’s what the play is for,” said Solomon, who scored 16 points and had six rebounds.
Camper, who led Siena with 21 points, took responsibility for the defensive miscue that allowed Niagara to take its only lead.
“He was a good shooter,” Camper said. “He made a few threes in this game. It was a mental lapse by me.”
After Siena’s Jordan King hit a 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds left, the Purple Eagles easily handled the inbounds pass to close their third straight win.
Greg Kuakumensah scored 17 points – all in the second half – as Niagara (6-11, 4-2 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) earned its third consecutive win in dramatic fashion. Justin Roberts’ free throw with 24 seconds left, and deft ball possession in the final 12 seconds of regulation helped the Purple Eagles to a 70-69 win Jan. 12 at Iona. Friday night at the Gallagher Center, Hammond’s game-winning shot against Rider made the highlight reels on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
The Purple Eagles might be making these kinds of wins into a trend.
“I don’t know, but these guys keep making plays,” said Paulus, Niagara's first-year coach. “And they deserve the credit, whether it’s making free throws down the stretch or getting a defensive rebound, whether it’s getting a loose ball, 50-50 on the floor. The last couple games have each had their own different way of ending it, and we’ve had a different guy make that play.”
Against Siena (7-9, 3-4), the Purple Eagles trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half and as many as 10 early in the second half.
But while the Purple Eagles led for less than 45 seconds, Siena coach Carmen Maciariello singled out a call against the Saints seven minutes into the second half as the turning point of the game. Less than a minute after Kuakumensah hit a 3-pointer that cut Siena’s lead to 51-46, Siena guard Donald Carey collided with Niagara guard Nick MacDonald as MacDonald faked a shot from the perimeter and stepped to his left.
Carey was assessed a flagrant-1 foul on the play.
“Defenseless, and the physicality of the foul,” Maciariello said of the explanation of the flagrant. “I said, ‘there’s no place for my guy to go, he’s trying to take it down at the 3-point line and he shot fakes and he dribbles and jumps in the air, where do you want him to go? He can’t all the sudden just stop. There’s gravity.’ It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Hammond (12 points) sunk both free throws, and a pair of layups by Kuakumensah bookended a free throw by Siena’s Kyle Young and tied the game at 52-52, despite playing with three fouls against him.
“That flagrant foul changed the game,” said Maciariello, whose team led 36-30 at halftime.
In the midst of a three-game winning streak, the Purple Eagles are creating consistency by communicating, by taking on new roles on the court and by learning how to handle in-game adversity. That may not have been the case about two months ago, when the Purple Eagles opened the season 0-5.
“For us to continue to respond, we were down by double digits, we just kept believing," Paulus said. "In their huddles and on their faces, there was confidence we had a run in us and it was, ‘they got us, let’s get them.’
“We just kept chipping away, chipping away. Learning to win in different ways is important. We executed just enough to get it done today.”
As of Sunday afternoon, Niagara is one of four teams tied for first place in the MAAC, and the Purple Eagles are a far cry from a team that was in turmoil less than three months ago, following the abrupt resignation of former coach Patrick Beilein.
But Paulus remains pragmatic about his team.
“We don’t talk about that,” Paulus said of his team being atop the MAAC standings. “It’s about us and how we can grow and how we can continue to get better and improve. Whether we win a close game or we lose one, we don’t want that to take away from our process, and that’s about growing.”