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Purple Eagles’ experience leads to upset

by David Sanchirico | March 8th, 2010

Niagara come into the ’09-’10 season with high expectations. They were expected to be right behind frontrunner Siena, and were predicted to head to the MAAC Championship game behind the leadership of Tyrone Lewis.

After an up-and-down campaign, the Purple Eagles might be realizing that potential at the right time.

Niagara, ranked No. 6, struggled throughout most of the season, but as usual, started catching fire in February. That sizzle has continued this month, and it showed in the team’s quarterfinal battle with No. 3 seed Iona.

The Gaels went into halftime up 32-30, but Niagara, led by senior guards Lewis and Billel Benn, tightened up on defense and used its experience to pull off an “upset” win.

Niagara (18-14) will now take on No. 2 Fairfield Sunday after the Purple Eagles’ 68-64 win over Iona (21-10).

“Someone told me today it was the kids that have been on the block versus the up-and-coming stars,” said Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich. “Thankfully our boys pulled it off tonight.

Experience was the key as Niagara hit key free throws, made stops when it needed to, and battled of numerous Gael runs to capture the win.

Lewis, as has been the case the past four seasons, willed Niagara to victory. He finished with a double double (21 points, 10 rebounds) and hit numerous huge shots and free throws down the stretch, scoring nine points in the final two minutes. The senior from Philadelphia finished 9-for-9 from the line, many coming in the final minute. Benn, a Villanova transfer, chipped in 16 points and 11 rebounds in the win.

The big play came with less than two minutes left and Niagara down one. On a missed Rob Garrision jumper, Niagara saved the offensive rebound and got the ball to Lewis, who immediately fired a 3-point shot to put Niagara up 56-54 with 1:47 left. That was he last Niagara field goal as the Purple Eagles converted on 10-straight free throws to maintain the lead.

Lewis has made the big play before in previous MAAC tournaments, and this one continues his journey towards the MAAC Championship. Niagara and Fairfield tips off at 6:30 p.m.

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