COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The seventh-seeded Niagara Purple Eagles gave the No. 2 seed Maryland Terrapins a scare before eventually falling in the 2013 NIT First Round on Tuesday night. The Purple Eagles headed into halftime tied with the perennial ACC power; before Maryland pulled away in the second half for the 86-70 win.
Trailing 9-2 in the opening minutes, NU (19-14) reeled off a 15-4 run, including scoring nine straight to take a 17-13 lead. Antoine Mason started the run with a jumper in the paint and then closed it by making three straight free throws.
A jumper by Juan’ya Green with 5:39 left in the half gave the Purple Eagles their largest lead in the game, 29-23. Maryland (23-12) answered with a 12-3 run to regain the lead with a minute remaining in the opening half. Ameen Tanksley drained the third of his team-high four 3-pointers with 40 seconds on the clock as the game went into the half tied at 35-35. It was the first time NU was tied with a team from a Power 6/BCS Conference since playing at Auburn in the 2009-10 season opener (33-33).
“I thought we had these guys back on their heels a little bit,” head coach Joe Mihalich said. “For me, without thinking too hard about it, we had a chance in the first half. We were up six; we missed a one-and-one, and then real quick it was: dunk, layup, dunk, tie game. That was just what they needed to remind them how good they are, and that they beat Duke twice. That’s where we lost it, or at least had our chance.”
A Devon White free throw to start the half pushed NU back in front, but a triple by Seth Allen sparked a 12-0 run by Maryland which stretched into a 21-2 run over the next five minutes. NU, which shot 40 percent in the first half, struggled to keep up with the Terps, who improved to 17-3 at home this season. Niagara had made a habit this season of rallying from double-digit deficits; but Maryland’s 22 point second half lead proved to be too large of a deficit for the Purple Eagles to overcome.
“Credit to them, I like that team,” Mihalich said. “I said to Mark [Turgeon] afterward that I hope they win it, and I think they can. In these tournaments you win one and you start feeling it. If they can get another one who knows. We’ll be rooting for them.”
Mason had game-high honors with 24 points, while converting a game-best 12-for-13 at the free-throw line. Tanksley followed with 18 points and seven rebounds; T.J. Cline wrapped up his freshman season with 11 points and Green added 10.
“I told the team, I don’t want them to forget that we could have beaten Maryland, but that being said I told them that how proud we are of them and what a great year we had,” Mihalich said. “This team wasn’t supposed to win the (regular season) championship and wasn’t supposed to be in the NIT, so I’m really proud of this team.”
Tonight was the second-ever meeting between the programs, with the previous meeting coming in the 1972 NIT Championship Game.
NU was making its 14th appearance in the NIT and first since the 2008-09 season. Niagara, which will return 10 of the 11 players on this season’s squad, finished the 2012-13 campaign with a 19-14 record.