SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (Niagara Press Release) – The No. 1 seed Niagara Purple Eagles had their run to a conference tournament championship come to an end in a 79-73 loss to fourth-seeded Iona in the 2013 MAAC Tournament Semifinals on Sunday at the MassMutual Center.
“I could never be more proud of a team,” head coach Joe Mihalich said, who was coaching in his 10th semifinal in 15 seasons. “It’s hard to be disappointed, but I am; but I’m just so proud of this team and what they have done.”
“I don’t know if we had any business winning 13 games in that league this year and we did. We got one in the playoffs, won a regular season championship. We will be going to a special postseason tournament and if I know the guys they will start setting new goals and to do something special in the NIT.”
Niagara (19-13) traded baskets early and often with the Gaels (19-13) in the opening half. A mid-range jumper by Antoine Mason gave NU its largest lead of the game at 30-24 with 5:16 left in the half. Juan’ya Green’s layup with 45 seconds left capped the scoring in a feverish half between the two highest scoring teams in the conference as Niagara led 40-39 at halftime.
The pace in the second half slowed down, but the intensity remained high on both teams. The opening ten minutes in the half was played in a five-point window, until Iona’s David Laury made a jumper at the 9:18 mark to start a 10-2 run as the Gaels built their largest lead of the game at 70-61 with 6:37 left.
NU answered with a 6-0 spurt to cut the deficit to 70-67. Trailing 72-67 with 2:28 remaining, the Purple Eagles had a few chances to trim the lead over the following two minutes. Ameen Tanksley had a jumper rim out, and on Iona’s next possession, Green stole the inbound pass and found a wide open Marvin Jordan, whose 3-pointer missed with 1:28 left. NU had another opportunity to cut the lead to two, but Green missed his last 3-pointer of the game with 35 seconds left.
The Gaels went 7-for-8 at the free-throw line in the final 33 seconds. Laury led Iona with 20 points and 17 rebounds.
Niagara had five players in double figures for the fourth time this season. Mason, an All-MAAC First Team performer, led the game with 21 points for his second consecutive 21-point game in the tournament. Ameen Tanksley followed with 14 points while Marvin Jordan, T.J. Cline and Green each had 11.
As regular season champions, the Purple Eagles are guaranteed a spot in this season’s National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Niagara will find out its opponent on Sunday on the NIT Selection Show.
“It is fantastic to be in the NIT,” Mihalich said. “We are just heartbroken right now but in a day or two we will be excited to be in such a prestigious postseason tournament. It is an incredible accomplishment.”
NIT Selection Show will air live on ESPNU and ESPN3 on Sunday, March 17 at 9 p.m.