ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Greg Paulus never imagined when he was promoted to head coach of the Niagara men’s basketball program two weeks before the start of the season after Patrick Beilein abruptly resigned because of personal reasons before ever coaching a game, that he’d lead the Purple Eagles on a run in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament.
But after Marcus Hammond drove the lane and dished to Raheem Solomon for the game-winning shot in the final seconds, allowing No. 6 Niagara to survive a first-round slugfest with No. 11 Marist, 56-54 late Tuesday night, the Eagles will have an opportunity to advance to the conference semifinals when they face No. 3 Rider at 7 p.m. Thursday at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
“At that point in time, I wasn’t thinking about that,” Paulus said. “When the opportunity came, in which I’m so grateful for, the first thing that I focused on was our players and spending the time with them, making sure that they knew that we were going to support them, believe in them, continue to push them and challenge them to get them better.
“And at that point, to think five months down the road, it was day by day. That’s where our mindset was and that’s where it’s been. And (Wednesday), we’re going to figure out a game plan and we’ll figure out how to get ready for Rider. We’ll keep that day-to-day approach.”
Niagara (12-20), a young team with just one senior, had been blown out in both regular-season games against Marist (7-23). But the Eagles have already experienced success against Rider (18-12). The teams split the seasons series, with Niagara defeating the Broncs, 70-68, on Jan. 17 at home and losing, 73-58, on Feb. 9 in Lawrenceville, N.J.
Rider features three players named to All-MAAC teams this season, including redshirt junior swingman Dimencio Vaughn, a unanimous first-team selection who was fifth in the league in average scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounds (6.6) this season. His 1.8 steals per game were second in the league and his shooting percentage (48.4) ranked eighth.
Rider junior forward Frederick Scott and senior center Tyere Marshall were third-team selections.
“They present a lot of challenges,” Paulus said. “They’re terrific throwing the ball inside. They have great size and physicality. They can push the ball. They score easy in transition. They can get the ball to the paint off the bounce, so they’re a very difficult team to guard … and very talented players, so we’re going to have a lot of work in terms of our preparation to try to give ourselves the best chance to compete.”
Hammond, the sophomore guard who was named first-team All-MAAC after leading the Eagles in average points (14.2), rebounds (4.6) and assists (2.9) per game this season, unleashed a 20-point effort against Marist.
But his game-winning play was a show of selflessness.
Hammond calmly dribbled the ball near midcourt in the final seconds, draining the shot clock before driving the lane and dishing to Solomon for a layup with 3.8 seconds to play.
It proved the dagger in a game that featured a whopping 21 lead changes and 11 ties.
“Coach told us to wait for six seconds so they wouldn’t get a lot of time, if we did miss, to get a shot off,” Hammond said. “When I was thinking about it, the last shot I settled and shot an airball, so this time I wanted to drive the ball, get in the lane and try to get an easier shot. And when three people collapsed on me, I (saw) Raheem.”
Solomon, who scored 14 points, said he was just in the right place at the right time.
“We made contact,” he said, “so when we made contact I knew he had the opportunity to pass and he dished it off and I had the game-winning shot.”
Shandon Brown contributed a team-high seven rebounds and four assists for the Eagles.
Marist junior Michael Cubbage, who led the team in scoring this season, missed a potential game-winning 3-point shot at the buzzer. He finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Jordan Jones and Tyler Saint-Furcy each scored 11 points for Marist.
“That's what game experience is for, and all those practices," Hammond said, explaining Niagara's poise despite its youth. "We played 30-some games, and staying together as a team, getting better, staying locked in through the ups and downs, just staying together and keep fighting. That’s the big thing, keep fighting."