Niagara wins big with defensive effort

Junior forward Jason Thompson had 22 points and nine rebounds, but his efforts alone were not enough to beat Niagara.By Leo D. Rommel

Maybe it was something Jason Thompson said.

Moments after leading his team to a dominant win over longtime rival Iona in the opening round of this year’s MAAC tournament, the understandably overconfident superstar forward addressed the media about his team’s next opponent.

“We know we can hang with Niagara,” said Thompson. “We know we can score on them. They are not that good of a defensive team. The key will be to get stops and to contain them.”

As it happened, those words would be used as fuel for second-seeded Niagara, which trounced Rider, 77-52, the following evening in the tournament’s quarterfinal round. For the Purple Eagles, it would be the first of three crucial wins it would put together en route to its second MAAC championship in three years and a berth in the NCAA tournament.

For Rider, it was the second consecutive year in which the team was sent home in the early rounds of the tournament.

“We heard there was a rumor going around that [Thompson] had said that,” said Niagara junior forward Charron Fisher, who was one of four players on his team to score in double-digits. “We wanted to make a statement. We’re a team that if you tell us we can’t do something, we’re going to go out and work hard to do it.”

To Thompson’s credit, Niagara – an offensively gifted yet defensively challenged team throughout much of the regular season – did little to slow the MAAC Defensive Player of the Year. Thompson posted his usual dominant numbers (22 points and nine rebounds) and combined with sophomore guard Lamar Johnson (11 points), the two scored 33 of the team’s 52 points. His only imperfections were the three offensive fouls he tallied early in the game and the mere six points he scored in the first half.

Instead, Niagara’s domination stemmed directly from its ability to limit everyone else. Senior guard Terrance Mouton, in the last game of his collegiate career, forced several careless passes and posted just seven points on 3-10 shooting. Freshman guard Ryan Thompson uncharacteristically struggled; he had just four points on 2-for-11 shooting (0-for-6 from the three-point line).

“Right now there is a difference between that team and us,” said Rider Head Coach Tommy Dempsey. “For us to get to where they are, we have a lot of work to do.”

Rider began the contest on solid footing, taking a 7-3 lead when sophomore forward Harris Mansell nailed an open jumper just inside the three-point line. But the team went flat soon thereafter, shooting just 7-for-22 for the rest of the half. In addition to being out-rebounded 24-14 (10-2 on the offensive boards) and turning the ball over 11 times, Rider allowed Niagara to post runs of 9-0, 12-0 and 7-0. By halftime, it was staring up at a 36-18 deficit.

Startlingly, Rider trimmed the lead to just eight, at 52-44, after Jason Thompson scored a layup with 7:55 left to play. But on the subsequent play, senior guard Lorenzo Miles hit a three-point shot that pushed Niagara’s lead back to double-digits, and Rider never got close again.

“It’s tough,” said Johnson. “We were down, but we never thought we were out of it. We never gave up.”

The defeat offset the thrilling events of the night before, when Rider avenged their most embarrassing loss of the season – a 69-57 defeat at previously winless Iona on Feb. 3 – by trouncing those same Gaels, 67-52, in the play-in round. Thompson again led the way for Rider with 24 points and 16 rebounds. Mansell, who tallied 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting, aided him brilliantly.

But in spite of leading most of the way, Rider got a scare early in the second half when Iona, down 42-29 at intermission, went on an 8-2 run that closed the deficit to just seven, 44-37. A lay-up by Thompson a minute and a half later broke the run, and ahead 59-49 with 9:56 left to play, Rider used an 11-0 run to put the game out of reach.

“The time that [Iona] beat us, we were shorthanded,” said Mansell. “We didn’t use that as an excuse, but we really weren’t ready to play. We took them lightly. This time, we were prepared and we knew we had to get this win.”

For Rider, the up-and-down weekend concluded a turnaround season in which the team won twice as many games (16) in 2006 as it did in 2005. Thompson, of course, was the highlight of the season. He was just one of three Division I players to average over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Niagara, meanwhile, eventually ended its season by falling to top-seeded Kansas, 107-67, in the first round of the NCAA tournament’s west bracket.

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