LEWISTON — When Luke Bumbalough caught the ball, his only option to beat the ticking shot clock was to have an off-balance 3-pointer.
When a shot like that goes in on the first possession, it’s usually an indicator of what kind of game it’s going to be. Niagara scored the first nine points, made 13 of its first 15 shots and shot 73.1% from the field to score a season-best 52 points in the first half.
Former Niagara coach and interim Fairfield coach Chris Casey called timeouts, he switched defenses, but mostly he stood with his mouth agape and hands on his hips, devoid of answers as the Stags saw their eight-game winning streak end. The Purple Eagles shot 61.8% from the field in a 96-72 win, marking the first time they have scored 75 points in three consecutive games since Casey was coach in 2017.
It was a contrast to a three-game home stretch to start December that saw Niagara shoot 40.2% in three consecutive losses. Toss in road losses to Binghamton and Syracuse and the Purple Eagles’ season appeared on the ropes at 3-8 and 0-2 in MAAC play.
But after back-to-back MAAC wins at Manhattan and Siena, Niagara has won four games in a row, with a chance for a fifth when it hosts Siena at noon Sunday. And after making just eight shots in the first half against Buffalo on Dec. 29, the Purple Eagles are shooting 55.4% over the last seven halves.
“There’s things that you have to go through as a team and we haven’t experienced all we’re going to yet,” Niagara coach Greg Paulus said. “We had a really good meeting, we had a really good understanding of where we were as a team, and how we could continue to be better as coaches, as players, as team, and since that point, I think we’ve been just trying to focus in on us and kind of growing a little bit.”
Niagara (7-8, 3-2 MAAC) has posted 81.3 points per game over its last eight games, with a 20-point scorer — from six different players — in each of those games. With 20 points against Fairfield, Ahmad Henderson II became the latest.
The 5-foot-8 freshman made his first four shots and scored 17 of his points in the first half, while shooting 7 of 11 from the floor for the game. After starting the season averaging 15.2 points per game, Henderson went scoreless in consecutive games and had 24 points combined in the last two games.
Capitalizing on long rebounds from Fairfield’s 3-for-15 performance from the 3-point line in the first half, Henderson was able to create some easy baskets in transition and off the dribble. That led to a step-in 3-pointer in the first half and a transition 3 in the second half, both shot confidently.
“The easy baskets got me going,” Henderson said. “I just kind of been trying to take what the defense gives me; I’m not trying to force anything. When I get easy baskets, it gets me going and that’s what (got me) to a good start.”
Henderson wasn’t alone, however, as Niagara put three players in double figures in the first half and — for the game. Bumbalough hit three 3s and scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, while Yaw Obeng-Mensah tossed in 16 points on 6 of 8 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds.
Braxton Bayless, who scored a career-high 22 points and hit the game-winning 3 to beat Iona — scored 13 points off the bench to hit double-digits for the seventh time in eight games, while Kwane Marble Jr. had 12 points off the bench to hit double-digits for the third game in a row. In total, Niagara received 37 points from its bench.
“We have a lot of people that can space the floor,” Bayless said. “The plays (Paulus) draws up are great. So for me to get downhill, it’s just good all around.”
Despite a hot-shooting first half, Niagara had just five assists on 19 field goals. The Purple Eagles used dribble penetration to get easy looks in the paint and to draw contact, taking 15 free throw attempts in the first 20 minutes.
That flipped in the second half when Niagara began to find open shooters. The Purple Eagles found open players cutting to the hoop and behind the arc as Fairfield tried using a zone defense and some full-court pressure. Led by Bumbalough’s seven assists, Niagara had assists on 10 of 15 field goals, going 6 of 9 from the 3-point line and 10 of 15 for the game on a season-low six turnovers.
“We needed to do a little bit better job of guarding the basketball,” said Casey, who went 64-129 as Niagara coach from 2013-2019. “They did a good job, to their credit, of driving the ball and getting into the lane. I don’t think they made a ton of 3s in the first half, but they got to the lane a little bit too easy on us.”