Immediate reactions: Niagara 83, Davidson 72
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • December 11, 2013 @ 7:59pm
No one realistically expected Chris Casey to lead Niagara to a record over .500—or even close—11 games into his first year as an NCAA Division I head coach.
At 2-8 entering Wednesday’s First Niagara Center clash against Davidson, Casey had an opportunity—despite the program’s abysmal record—to prove to local college basketball fans that the Purple Eagles aren’t suddenly a Big 4 afterthought now that legendary head coach Joe Mihalich has moved on to Hofstra.
In a marathon game that was by no means pretty—due 57 combined fouls and 71 free throws—Niagara rode an inspiring performance from Antoine Mason and terrific secondary scoring from Marvin Jordan (17 points) and Tahjere McCall (16 points) to an 83-72 victory in front of roughly 2,000 at the First Niagara Center.
Time for a slew of immediate reactions, or as Buffalo.com Sabres blogger Ryan Nagelhout would say “Hot Takes.”
**Mase’s Toughness: Coming out of the locker room at halftime, Mason, the nation’s leading scorer, came up gimpy within the first few possessions, favoring his lower back and jogging with a clear hitch in his step.
Casey pulled Mason to the bench for roughly four minutes into the stanza, but—in the 13 second-half minutes he played—the junior forward was forced into a complementary role for a short stretch before crunch time necessitated his involvement. In the game’s final 11:31, however, Mason struck for 19 of his game-high 21 points, including an efficient 12-15 from the free-throw line.
With Mason hampered on defense and restricted in his movement offensively, Niagara survived with a collective effort defensively, forcing Davidson into 10 second-half turnovers and holding them to 36 percent shooting for the game.
**Sharp McCall: In Niagara’s run to the MAAC regular season championship last year, then-true freshman Tahjere McCall proved an exceptional defender—but a complete liability on offense. When McCall hurt his knee in the MAAC Tournament second-round game against Siena, the Purple Eagles dearly missed his length and tenacity defensively as well as his energy.
From his 6-7 shooting performance on Wednesday—where he pulled up from 12-feet to stick a jumper in a defender’s face, then later confidently stepped out to stroke a three-pointer from the wing—it’s clear that McCall focused on adding range during the off-season while his disgruntled teammates sought out other schools. Kudos to him, as there were questions whether or not he’d mature into a reliable college athlete.
**Learning Curve: Three first-half turnovers proved just how raw Casey’s three freshmen rotation players are:
1) Freshman point guard Cameron Fowler, working a pick-and-roll play on the left wing, forces a bounce pass at the roller’s ankles—the ball bumbles around between Marcus Ware’s legs and trickles out of bounds. A red-faced Casey yells to look at opposite wing instead of keying in on a play that wasn’t there.
2) True freshman Ramone Snowden tries to lob a pass to Marcus Ware in the post, but it’s nowhere close to his target. An smart pass is fundamental at the college level, yet the Purple Eagles struggle in that facet.
3) Snowden receives a pass at the top of the key—is wide open to shoot—but hesitates with the ball at his hip. Instead, the freshman penetrates right and throws the ball well over the head of Wesley Myers.
There’s plenty of potential from the youngsters, as Fowler, Snowden, Myers and redshirt sophomore transfer Rayvon Harris all showed glimpses—and effort doesn’t seem to be an issue with any of the quartet. Especially in the backcourt, though, the learning curve will be exceptionally steep.
**Stat-line I liked:
—The Purple Eagles shot 23-30 from the free-throw stripe in the second half, good for 77 percent. That was enough to keep the Wildcats at bay.
**Stat-line I didn’t like:
—57 fouls combined between the two teams. I know it’s a common thing in college basketball this year, but the number of fouls called—and the ticky-tack nature of a lot of them—is silly.
**What’s next?: Niagara hosts St. Bonaventure at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Photos courtesy of Robin David Brown from the UB vs. Niagara game early this season.