ALBANY, NY. — Last night here at the Times Union Center, the No. 6 seed Niagara Purple Eagles defeated the No. 3 seed Iona Gaels. Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich was all too familiar with the outcome.
“Two years ago we were in this game, the three-six game,” Mihalich said. “(Tonight) was like history repeating itself. We lost to Marist. We finished third, Marist finished sixth, and these guys — Tyrone Lewis and company — learned from that painful experience.”
The two matchups and their results are amazingly similar. In the 2008 MAAC Tournament, Niagara was the young team that went 12-6 in conference to earn the three seed. Marist was the six seed, but had the veterans that so often reign supreme in postseason play, starting four seniors and a junior. Many thought Marist would be a difficult matchup for the Purple Eagles and they were right, as the game went down to the wire. Back and forth throughout, Marist took the lead for good with just under two minutes left and won 66-62.
Compare that to last night’s (or should I say, this morning’s) game. Iona, at 12-6, was the young, inexperienced three seed with the unlucky Tournament draw. Yes, the Gaels had already beaten Niagara twice this season, but the Purple Eagles have been playing their best basketball of late. College basketball coaches always talk about peaking in March, and that’s certainly what Mihalich’s squad is doing. With a completely healthy roster, Niagara is clicking after a mid-season slump that saw them lose six of seven conference games.
Of the five players who saw the most minutes last night for Niagara, four are seniors and one is a junior. Contrast that with Iona’s underclassmen-heavy roster (two freshmen and a sophomore started) and you’ve got the makings for another “upset,” at least in terms of seeding. Sure enough, Niagara reclaimed the lead with just under two minutes remaining and never looked back. Even the final score, 68-64, was nearly identical to the Niagara-Marist outcome.
The post-game chatter was focused primarily on Niagara’s advantage in one of the areas you can’t coach: experience. “Our seniors are winners. Our seniors have been there before,” Mihalich said. “Somebody said to me this morning, “It’s going to be the up-and-coming stars against the current stars — the seniors — and it was going to be a battle of wills. And thank goodness our seniors did what they had to do at the end, whether it was a defensive play, taking a charge, or making foul shots.”
The most clutch player was certainly the senior guard Lewis, who had a game-high 21 points and added 10 rebounds. His three-pointer with 1:47 to play put Niagara up for good, and he was perfect from the free throw line, including going six-for-six in the final 1:25 to preserve the victory.
“I think (experience) is huge,” Iona head coach Kevin Willard said. “They’re an experienced team. We beat St Peter’s (in the regular season finale) and they told me we got Niagara. They were picked second in the conference for a reason.
“Experience is tough. We had our chances though.”
Iona fans can rest assured knowing that in just a couple of years it will be the Gaels who have the experience that is just so critical in these conference tournaments.