LEWISTON — Simple. Simple. Simple.
That’s what coach Greg Paulus barked when Niagara tried to complete a highly intelligent, but low percentage pass during a tight game against Manhattan on Friday at the Gallagher Center.
The Purple Eagles led by 14 in the first half and were in jeopardy of blowing a second-half lead for the fifth time in six games. But after the under-8 media timeout, they came out with a more simple, but effective approach.
Niagara drove into the paint on seven of its next 11 possessions, resulting in three fouls drawn, four baskets and 11 points, turning a two-point lead into eight. and when the Jaspers cut the lead to one in the final minute, Noah Thomasson once again went into the paint, the defense collapsed and he found Lance Erving for a dagger 3-pointer with 19.3 seconds left.
The 68-62 win over Manhattan put the Purple Eagles back over .500 in the MAAC and 2.5 games back of conference-leading Iona, and more importantly, they were able to hang onto a lead for the second consecutive game.
“We want to continue to learn how to close out games,” Paulus said. “… Maybe the last like seven games or eight games, where it’s come down to the final possession. and so for us, I think it’s just an opportunity for us to continue to learn so hopefully the next time we’re in a situation we can be a little bit better in it.”
Niagara’s shooting was scorching, going 5 of 9 from 3 and shooting 58.3% from the field in the first half. Shooting from the outside may have been the reasonable answer to Manhattan’s 6-foot-9 Chris Roberts lurking near the rim. The St. John’s transfer leads the MAAC with 2.1 blocks per game and had four in the first meeting on Jan. 8 — a 64-59 Manhattan win — but the Purple Eagles exploited that this time around.
Knowing Roberts wanted to go for blocks, they either drove into his body to draw fouls or stopped short in the paint when he stepped up and threw drop-off passes for easy layups. In total, Niagara (11-9, 6-5 MAAC) outscored the Jaspers 34-26 in the paint and Roberts did not block a shot.
“We just emphasized that we were hot from outside, but they were extending their defense,” Niagara guard Joe Kasperzyk said. “So it was best for us just to get to those open gaps and get to the basket.”
When Nick Brennen missed the second of two free throws to tie the game and Aaron Gray corralled the rebound with 48.7 seconds left, Manhattan (6-13, 4-6) opted to let the possession play out, despite Niagara missing five of its previous 10 free throws.
But after slamming the ball inside for the previous eight minutes, Thomasson’s penetration completely collapsed the defense. Instead of dropping the ball to someone for a layup, he found Erving in rhythm.
“I saw it was an opportunity for me to get downhill but I knew they were going to help off me,” said Thomasson, who had a game-high 19 points, six rebounds and four assists. “And I saw Lance and I know he’s a big-time shooter. I trusted him and he knocked it down.”
Niagara appears back on track heading into the first Battle of the Bridge meeting when it hosts Canisius at 8 p.m. Feb. 3. It beat St. Peter’s 59-57 on a jumper by Thomasson with 9 seconds left Sunday and held onto a lead late.
Paulus was upbeat, even when his team squandered late leads during its four-game losing streak because they were in tight games. The Purple Eagles have led at halftime in nine of the last 10 games and 13 of their last 14 games have been decided by single-digits, with the last double-figure loss coming to Iona in the MAAC opener on Dec. 2.
“I told our guys after each of the games that we were playing really good basketball,” Paulus said. “I thought we were playing some really good basketball, just continuing to learn how to close those games off and that was my message to the guys. Just keep sticking with it, let’s keep learning, let’s keep fighting, let’s keep believing and these guys continue to do that.”
Kasperzyk was in double figures for the second time this season, finishing with 10 points and Sam Iorio chipped in nine points and eight rebounds. Ant Nelson led Manhattan with 16 points and seven assists, while Roberts had 14 points and five rebounds.