Umar Shannon played the hero once again, as the graduate transfer from Saint Francis University nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Quinnipiac Bobcats over the Niagara Purple Eagles 90-88 Saturday afternoon at the Gallagher Center in Lewiston, NY.
With just 4.6 seconds remaining on the clock and Quinnipiac leading 87-86, Niagara’s Antoine Mason drove to the basket off the inbound and drew a foul on Quinnipiac’s Ousmane Drame. Mason knocked down both shots from the charity stripe to put the Purple Eagles on top by one with 1.7 seconds left on the clock.
Ike Azotam took the ball on the baseline and hurled a full-court pass to the left wing where Mason and Zaid Hearst got tangled up going for the ball. As those two fell to the ground, the ball bounced off them to a wide open Shannon who got the shot off just before the buzzer to give the Bobcats the thrilling victory.
Niagara controlled the action in the first half, opening the game on an 18-7 run. The Purple Eagles shot a blistering 57.6% from the floor in the opening frame as they led by as much as 17 at the 7:30 mark. Thanks to a tremendous defensive effort which held Quinnipiac to just 35.1% shooting and 0.89 PPP in the first half, Niagara entered the break with a 46-33 advantage.
However, in the blink of an eye the Niagara defense reverted to the familiar group which has the Purple Eagles ranked at the bottom of the MAAC in defensive efficiency. After being held in check for most of the first half, the Quinnipiac offense shot just shy of 60% in the second half, scoring at a staggering rate of 1.58 PPP in the frame.
In the first 4:27 of the second half, Quinnipiac doubled Niagara’s scoring output 18-9 to cut the lead to four. An Evan Conti 3-pointer at 10:41 tied the game at 64 and an Azotam layup soon after gave the Bobcats their first lead of the game.
During a 5:52 stretch in the middle of the second half Niagara failed to convert a field goal, but did score 11 points off free throws. During that stretch, Conti tallied 10 of the Bobcats’ 16 points as the teams approached the final five minutes knotted at 77. The teams exchanged leads eight times down the stretch before the frantic final sequence gave the Bobcats the win. Niagara’s 17-point lead was the largest deficit Quinnipiac has overcome to win a game this season.
Quinnipiac controlled the glass once again, out-rebounding Niagara 51-29 on the afternoon. The Bobcats, leading the nation in offensive rebounding, pulled down 27 boards on the offensive side alone. With his seventh rebound of the afternoon, Azotam picked up his 1,000th career rebound, joining Justin Rutty (’11) as the only players in D-I program history to record 1,500 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Azotam corralled 13 rebounds in total, and with his season-high 26 points achieved his 42nd career double-double, setting a new program record. Drame matched Azotam’s point total for a new career high and pulled down 18 rebounds for his 12th double-double of the year. Conti used his strong second half run to post 15 points while handing out a game-high five assists. Shannon and Hearst each finished with nine points apiece.
Mason, the nation’s second leading scorer, once again paved the way for Niagara with a game-high 31 points. Three other Purple Eagles scored in double figures, including Marcus Ware and Marvin Jordan with 15 and 14 respectively. Joe Thomas rounded out the scoring with 12 points off the bench, including four straight buckets towards the end of the first half.
With the win, Quinnipiac maintains a firm hold on second place in the MAAC with just two games left to play and trail Iona by 1.5 games for first place. The Gaels, riding a 10-game winning streak, will play their next two on the road at Marist and Manhattan before finishing with a home game against Rider. Quinnipiac next plays Thursday Feb. 27 in their final home game against Siena before finishing their season on the road against Marist.
Sitting at 14-4 in MAAC play and on the cusp of their first 20-win season in three years, it is fair to say Quinnipiac has exceeded all expectations thus far in their first year in the MAAC. While the Bobcats should be proud of all they have done this year, there is still much left to accomplish. A top two finish in the MAAC would be extremely impressive for this squad in their first year in the conference, but the ultimate goal still awaits in Springfield this March.
Vincent Simone will be chronicling Quinnipiac’s move to the MAAC and helping cover the conference this season for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.