A last-second Raheem Solomon layup handed Marist their sixth first-round exit in seven MAAC tournaments as Niagara topped the Red Foxes 56-54 on Tuesday night.
“They made a few more plays than we did,” said head coach John Dunne. “We left points off the board and that can’t happen in tournament time.”
A tip-off after 10:00 p.m. left for little fans in the stands in a battle between the two worst teams in the conference according to most metrics. Marist came into the evening with one conference tournament win in seven seasons while Niagara only had one in the last five. It felt a fitting game to be the late start on the first day of a conference tournament.
The Red Foxes entered the matchup as the conference’s 11-seed for the second time in three years. John Dunne’s squad had dropped four straight and seven of their previous eight to fall to the conference’s bottom seed, while Niagara has lost four of their last six and reached the sixth seed through their reliance on standout sophomore guard Marcus Hammond. Hammond has averaged 17.4 points per contest in their last eight games, leading the Purple Eagles in points, rebounds, and assists per game. Marist had already beaten Niagara by an average of 20 points in both meetings this season. On top of that, the two teams previously played in the MAAC Tournament in 2014 when Niagara won another close first-round matchup.
“We’re disappointed we couldn’t come up with a win,” said Dunne. “Especially after playing so well against these guys in the regular season.”
A back-and-forth start saw 13 lead changes and four ties in the opening half. The Red Foxes reached the bonus in less than eight minutes and shot 17 free throws to Niagara’s six. A contested jump shot by Hammond closed out the half and gave the Purple Eagles a slim 31-30 lead heading into the break. It was just two of Hammond’s 12 first-half points.
A late stretch in the second half brought more drama as Jordan Jones converted a hook shot to tie the game with 32 seconds to play. Hammond dribbled at the top of the frontcourt in an isolation set. The sophomore guard then drove the lane as three Red Foxes crowded the paint, setting up a dump pass to Solomon for the game-winning layup (and 21st lead change of the night). Marist’s Michael Cubbage saw a potential game-tying jump shot clank off the back of the rim at the end of regulation.
“I wanted to drive the ball and get into the lane and get an easier shot,” said Hammond. “When three people collapsed on me, I saw Raheem.”
Junior forward Jordan Jones and freshman guard Tyler Saint-Furcy each had 11 points in the loss. Cubbage shot just three-for-11 from the field with ten points but contributed nine rebounds and six assists. A lowly four-for-22 day from beyond the arc accounted for 48% of Marist’s shot attempts.
“Our guys need to continue to work,” said Dunne. “Every guy on the roster needs to get better. We’re going to add a couple of pieces and be a different story next year.”
Hammond was the top scorer for the Purple Eagles with 20 points on seven-for-14 from the field; Solomon added 14. Sophomore guard Shandon Brown led the team in rebounds and assists with seven and four. The Purple Eagles were outrebounded 35 to 24 in the win.
Niagara improves to 12-20 on the year and will move on to the quarterfinals and face Rider on Thursday night.
Marist falls to 7-23 on the season and is eliminated from the MAAC Tournament. It was their eighth loss of five points or fewer this season.
“Games that came down to the last 90 seconds, we didn’t do well in,” said Dunne. “And we have to figure that out.”
Edited by Will Bjarnar
Header photo from the MAAC