SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - When it comes to March, there is a big difference between playing the role of the young underdog as opposed to being handed the role of the favorite. It takes a marvelous actor to be able to play both in back-to-back seasons, one with range and natural talent.
Last season, Niagara was one of the youngest teams in the nation, showing flashes of brilliance behind freshman Juan'ya Green - who became known for his unique name - and sophomore Antoine Mason - who was recognized by his famous father, former New York Knick Anthony.
In the end, the Purple Eagles finished 14-19 without much defense to match their offense, won a play-in game in the MAAC Tournament, and gave eventual winner a half of fear in the quarterfinals before going away.
This season, though, Niagara - led by Green and Mason again, but with a few more pieces to help the cause - won the MAAC regular season championship and with it the top seed in the postseason tourney. To be fair, they were far from dominant, finishing with five losses (13-5), but still came to Springfield with expectations that a top seed has, namely dispatching of a crappy No. 9 seed like 8-23 Siena in the first quarterfinal Saturday.
Led by the underrated Ameen Tanksley and a couple of big #superhoops
off the bench from Marvin Jordan, the Purple Eagles built an expected nine-point lead late in the first half. But starter Tahjere McCall went down (and appears to be out for the tournament) with a knee injury and Devon White joined him on the bench with two quick fouls.
And as I pointed out in Siena's opening round win, it's a proud bunch with a dominant senior in O.D. Anosike, who was going to make sure he went down for good scrapping. Rob Poole and Evan Hymes - two sophomores who were inconsistent for much of the campaign - hit open #superhoops, and Siena had crawled back to within 32-31 at the half.
As the Saints stayed within striking distance, you could feel the tension ooze from Niagara. Green tried to press matters more than usual, Mason actually looked to his dad at one point in disgust after a call didn't go his way (Anthony screamed back at him to stop looking at him and play the game, to his credit), even Mihalich - a 15-year veteran on the sidelines for Niagara - was agitated and running around much more than usual; that's not his reputation at all.
It's something that comes with the territory in Championship Fortnight, unfortunately, a loss in this game would mar an otherwise fantastic season. But how do you handle that pressure? As Raheem Brookins drilled another #superhoop
to being Siena within two with 11:30 left, the answer was a decided no.
But a combination of solid defense, a couple of clutch shots, and the fact of course that Siena just isn't very good, Niagara never completely lost it, kept the lead (albeit smaller than they wanted) down the stretch, and are headed back to the semifinals. Mihalich never really calmed down until the final seconds, surely just happy to survive and advance (aren't we all at this time of year).
Mason, as I'm sure he's done hundreds of times in his career, came out of the locker room to watch the next game and sat between his parents (who ended up on the MassMutual Center scoreboard for the Kiss Cam and nicely gave a quick smooch for the camera) and listened as dad gave him advice (in attending several Niagara games, I appreciate Anthony for not being an over-the-top parent, at least he doesn't abuse refs or really even do anything but cheer most of the time) on how to give his best effort in the next round.
Only time will tell, and with a difficult matchup in Iona next on the agenda, we'll never know for sure, but I would argue that the type of game they played will be extremely beneficial to them going forward. I mean, how many big games have Mason and Green really played in their college careers thus far?
They will on Sunday.