Niagara University basketball coach Joe Mihalich had a tough choice to make.
His young mid-major team had stunned the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) during the course of the regular season this year. After being picked fifth or sixth in most preseason publications, his Purple Eagles cut down the nets as regular season champs at 13-5 in their league. The title earned them an automatic bid to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and only a critical injury and a close loss in their conference tournament kept them from representing the MAAC in the NCAA tournament.
Mihalich’s choice was this: He could try and use the full court, up-tempo, run and stun style that he had employed so successfully during the season in their NIT opener tonight at Comcast Center against the Maryland Terrapins or he could opt for a more traditional possession by possession approach so often used my mid-major teams when they try and compete against a BCS team when they’re dealing with a talent and size differential.
In the end it was probably a no-win situation.
Wanting his team to play loose on a big stage, Mihalich opted to go up-tempo against a Maryland team that is probably playing its best basketball of the season and the end result was a resounding 86-70 Maryland win. The win improved the Terps to 23-12 on the season and advanced them to the second round of the NIT against either Denver or Ohio University on Thursday night.
Because the game involved a young and occasionally erratic Maryland team, it was not without drama.
The Terps fell behind by as many as six points in the first half before using a smaller lineup to find some defensive rhythm and tie the game at 35 going into the half. Niagara actually had to hit two long threes to get the score tied. To even the most impartial observer the tenor of the game had changed and Maryland had assumed control after a lethargic first fifteen minutes.
A 21-3 Maryland run over the first eight minutes of the second removed all of the drama of the first half and put the game comfortably in Maryland hands for the remainder. All that was left to be decided was which player would earn a spot on the 11:00 news with a highlight reel play. First it was Dez Wells with a hard drive and a tough three point play from behind the backboard. Then it was Seth Allen with a little French pastry of his own on a tough finish with the left hand in traffic. Finally it was senior Logan Aronhalt, who drilled five three pointers and helped loosen up the stingy Niagara zone defense.
While this Maryland team has been somewhat maddening during the majority of the season, it appears the proverbial light bulb has gone on over their collective heads. A bad start in games does not necessarily mean a bad finish anymore and the resilience and toughness – once questioned- is now completely laudable.
At the center of the genesis appears to be a couple of likely candidates and one you would never have guessed a month ago. As for the likely, Turgeon maintained a steady hand on the wheel in the face of a handful of disappointing February losses and incessant second guessing from all of the aspiring head coaches from Message Board University. In addition, the Terps have been buoyed by the star turn for sophomore Dez Wells. He showed flashes of it all year long but he found himself at the ACC tournament this past weekend and continued that level of play tonight. He was always the Terps most talented player…now he plays like it.
And then there’s point guard Pe’Shon Howard. All he has done is make a Phoenix-like transformation from the team flak magnet to team galvanizer. He deserves credit for it. Many players would have packed it in a long time ago.
Beyond that, more players are playing better. Wing Nick Faust, coming off a solid ACC tournament, had 15 points and 11 rebounds tonight and it playing with well on both ends of the floor. Freshman Seth Allen did not play well at all down the stretch of the season but has completely come alive the last week and looks like the player that his talent tells you he will be.
It (the NIT) is definitely not where you want to be at this point but, if that’s your only option, why not continue to get better and win some games. One thing is for sure…there are a couple of hundred Division 1 teams that would love to be playing right now.