AMHERST — Despite not getting the outcomes he had hoped for, Greg Paulus thought Niagara played “better basketball” in its recent road trip to central New York.
First, it was a 74-69 loss at Binghamton on Dec. 19 followed by an 83-71 defeat at Syracuse two days later. Both contests, Paulus said, gave the Purple Eagles more experience on how to compete in tight games, with momentum heading into their non-conference finale against rival Buffalo Friday.
But at the start against the Bulls, the momentum disappeared as Niagara shot only 30.8% from the floor and trailed 30-20 at halftime. The 20 points tied Niagara’s fewest at the break since a 94-60 home lost to St. Bonaventure on Dec. 6.
All Paulus had to do was write the word “Energy” on the wipeboard in the locker room to get Niagara to respond and, by the final horn, head into the new year on a high note.
With a game-changing 16-3 run in the first 4 minutes, 49 seconds out of the half as the spark, Niagara (4-8) secured a 69-63 win against Buffalo, its first win inside Alumni Arena since Nov. 25, 2008. Senior forward Yaw Obeng-Mensah led Niagara with 20 points and nine rebounds while veteran guard Luke Bumbalough scored 12 of his 13 points out of the break along with six assists.
An impactful key to the game, Paulus said, was creating extra possessions and extra effort plays. One example was rebounding, with Niagara out-totaling Buffalo, 35-30. Along with Obeng-Mensah, four players recorded five or more rebounds, including Harlan Obioha, who had seven boards and scored eight points. With the Bulls having offensive rebounding as a strength, Paulus said the team had to counter.
“(Yaw and Harlan) did an excellent job creating extra possessions, and not only creating extra possessions, but (we) were able to score off of those too,” Paulus said. “And those are momentum plays, where Dre (Bullock) and gets a backdoor lay-up and Yaw does a great job getting Luke (Bumbalough) his shots. There were just so many extra effort type of plays. We talk a lot about winning plays and those are winning type effort plays.”
Buffalo head coach George Halcovage III said his team did a good job defensively, overall, but it was Niagara scoring 15 points off 17 turnovers was the factor. Buffalo (1-11) had multiple opportunities in the final minute to pull off a late comeback. Sy Chatham, who had a game-high 29 points, drilled a 3-pointer with 51 seconds left to cut into Niagara’s 65-61 lead and stole the ball on the next play but was later called for an offensive foul.
His teammate, Isaiah Adams, who had 13 points, scored inside to cut Niagara’s lead again to four points (67-63) but with only 17.5 seconds left. For Halcovage III, Buffalo’s performance wasn’t a complete game.
“I think we did a great job in the first half of just being solid and physical on the post and we just kind of lost our concentration,” Halcovage III said. “And I think that’s where they hurt us the most is when they got the ball down (inside the paint) and made us pay with fouls. And that was more just us being undisciplined, and we got to learn how to play disciplined basketball for 40 minutes.”
Obeng-Mensah had entered Friday coming off his first double-double with the Purple Eagles against Syracuse with a 14-point, 11-rebound performance. After going through the first two months of the season, ranging from an overtime loss versus Quinnipiac Dec. 3 and an eight-point win versus NJIT Dec. 16, both inside the Gallagher Center, Obeng-Mensah said there’s momentum heading into the second because of the leadership.
“We all stick together,” Obeng-Mensah said. “It’s not like we’re all breaking down and stuff like that. They went on their run… We kept our composure and just play through it, because it’s a game (of) runs. You just got to take your time (and) be patient. And that’s what we did.”
Niagara continues its season at 7 p.m. Jan. 5 against MAAC opponent Manhattan.