LEWISTON — Niagara proved it takes a pretty big swing to get knocked out, but it has a limit.
The Purple Eagles trailed by 22 points with 8 minutes, 12 seconds remaining. They had 36 points and couldn’t seem to buy a basket, while Iona was bruising its way to easy basket after easy basket.
And then everything that was hard became easy. Niagara out-scored Iona 35-16 over the final 8:12, trimming the lead to one on two occasions in the final minute. But with two chances to tie the game over the final 16 seconds, the Purple Eagles couldn’t make one more basket to complete the comeback falling to Iona, 74-71, Thursday at the Gallagher Center.
Playing perhaps its worst first half of the season, Niagara committed 10 turnovers and Iona turned them into 20 points, out-muscling the Purple Eagles to build a 19-point halftime lead, which came two days after overcoming a 16-point hole to Canisius in the second half.
“They’re a really good basketball team, but you want to try not to put yourself in that position,” Niagara head coach Greg Paulus said. “If you are, you want to chip away and chip away, similar to what we were doing against Canisius the other day and that’s what we told our group. Let’s just get it down and get it down and they believed and fought and I’m proud of the efforts there at the end to give us a chance.”
Iona’s full-court pressure wasn’t anything new, as Niagara (12-11, 8-5 MAAC) committed 20 turnovers when the two and the Gaels scored 30 points in return when the teams met Jan. 7. But the difference in Niagara’s 75-73 win that night was free throws and physicality.
The Purple Eagles had a 15-point advantage at the free-throw line in the first meeting — 10 in the first half — and although Iona was just 14 of 27 from the line, it had a three-point advantage at the line and shot nine more free throws Thursday. The Purple Eagles mustered just two points from the line in the first half and missed the front of a one-and-one three times.
Niagara also had no answer for 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard Greg Gordon, who bullied his way to the rim for a game-high 32 points on 15 of 22 shooting, while grabbing 10 rebounds and drawing six fouls.
“I thought we were a little more physical, a little stronger, played well together on both ends of the floor,” Iona coach Tobin Anderson said. “If that game would have ended with five minutes to go, I’d be sitting here happy as heck, feeling like, man, it’s probably our best win of the season. But you’ve got to count the last five minutes and that was scary. That was really scary. We just almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
While Iona (12-10, 7-4) got into the paint at will — 44 points — Niagara mustered just 14 in the first half, and as a result forced some contested 3-pointers. Before making their push, the Purple Eagles were shooting 40.5% from the field and were just 2 of 12 from beyond the arc.
And then all of a sudden, Niagara started finding its way into the paint as a perfect storm swirled to grab some momentum. The Purple Eagles were aided by five Iona turnovers over the last eight minutes, while shooting 12 of 17 from the field, including 4 of 9 from beyond the arc and got another five points from the free-throw line.
The Gaels still shot 6 of 12 during that time, but went just 6 of 13 from the foul line and gave up 11 points off turnovers, including a strip-and-score by Yaw Obeng-Mensah to cut the lead to 70-69 with 23 seconds left.
Dre Bullock was the catalyst for Niagara during its comeback. He scored 11 points in the first half to give the Purple Eagles their only consistent offense and then scored 11 of the final 35 to finish with a career-high 22 points on 8 of 10 shooting.
“We just can’t start off slow like that, because it’s really hard to come back from that deficit,” Bullock said. “But yeah, especially like the second, third media (timeout), I feel like we was playing harder. We finally found ourselves and we just played hard.”
Ultimately, Niagara couldn’t tie the game as Lance Erving opted for an easier two instead of trying for a tying 3 with 7 seconds left and then Ahmad Henderson II’s tying 3 attempt at the buzzer was knocked away by Wheza Panzo despite what appeared to be contact.
The win allowed Anderson, who gained notoriety as the coach for Fairleigh-Dickinson, which became the second No. 16 team to beat a No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history when it beat Purdue last season, to continue his run of success against Western New York teams.
As the coach of Division II St. Thomas Aquinas for nine seasons, Anderson went 21-9 against Daemen and D’Youville from 2013-2022. With a 2-1 record against Canisius and Niagara this season, he enters Saturday’s game against the Golden Griffins 23-10 against Western New York-based teams as a head coach during the last 10 years.
“It’s nice out today, there’s no snow on the ground, so it’s actually been an enjoyable trip so far,” Anderson said. “Until about five minutes to go in the game, it was a really enjoyable trip.”
Braxton Bayless finished with 13 points and five assists, while Harlan Obioha chipped in 11 points for the Purple Eagles, who travel to Fairfield at 7 p.m. Feb. 16 for the first of three consecutive road games.