Marist men’s basketball extended their winning streak to three games and improved to 11-13 on the year with a 77-70 victory at home over Niagara. The final score wasn’t quite as close as last game’s 71-70 squeaker over Canisius, but the contest did still come down to the wire, as Marist saw an 18 point lead shrink all the way down to two with under three minutes remaining.
The Red Foxes played with intensity on defense for most of the night, successfully guarding the paint before suffering a defensive collapse in the game’s waning moments. It was clear that the team’s physical style of play was wearing on them, but they ultimately had just enough left in the tank in order to secure the win.
“We had some mental toughness tonight, and it wasn’t going perfect for us, they were making some big shots,” said Marist coach John Dunne. “I actually thought we were getting a little fatigued, and when the other team’s making shots, that energizes you.”
The first half started out slowly on both ends, with Niagara especially struggling to make shots in the post. The Purple Eagles were horrendous in the paint for most of the night, missing a number of layups, with a handful of second-chance shots off of rebounds being their only saving grace.
Swarming defense from the Red Foxes right in front of the basket played a key role in Niagara’s early offensive struggles, as there were often two or three Marist defenders clogging up lanes on most possessions. As a result, Niagara guards senior Marcus Hammond and junior Noah Thomasson shot a combined 4-16 from the field in the first half.
“Just knowing the action that they do, they had an action where the two bigs would go to the side and they would run a blast to the point guard. They ran it one time and I saw it the second time, so it was easy to help on that one because I knew it was coming,” said graduate student center Jordan Jones, who played a key role in Marist’s defensive success.
The Red Foxes, on the other hand, settled into a nice rhythm on offense after slogging through the first five minutes. Six-time MAAC Rookie of the Week freshman guard Jao Ituka set the pace with an efficient first half, shooting 3-4 from the field and 3-4 from the free-throw line while leading the team with 10 points scored at the break.
Marist began to gain a little bit of breathing room in the final few minutes of the half on a series of flashy plays. With four minutes left, sophomore guard Ricardo Wright fed Jones down in the paint on a beautiful assist from behind the arc, followed by a key senior forward Samkelo Cele three-pointer from near the top of the arc just over a minute later. The late surge ultimately gave Marist a 33-21 advantage at the break.
The Red Foxes then picked up right where they left off, as a scoring barrage in the first three minutes of the second half gave them an 18-point advantage. This scoring outburst included a beautiful possession in which Ituka wore out the Niagara defense with his gritty ball-handling skills, before ultimately dishing to senior forward Braden Bell for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer just before the shot clock expired.
Marist continued to hold onto their lead throughout the middle portion of the second half, with fluid ball movement serving as a catalyst for big plays. Cele came alive with a pair of dunks, including one which came on a gorgeous feed from redshirt senior center Victor Enoh on the baseline.
However, as the game progressed into the later stages, Niagara began to chip away by forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. The previous ferocity of the Marist defense suddenly vanished, causing out-of-breath defenders to have to scramble back on defense.
With just over 30 seconds remaining and the score suddenly close with Marist leading 71-68, they turned to Ituka to bring them to the finish line. The star freshman drove into the lane with one last burst of energy and made a layup, pushing the lead back up to five and capping off a night in which he led the team with 20 points on 50 percent shooting.
“I’m gonna have those drives, and and-ones, and finishes that help us stay up, and eventually help us win games,” said Ituka.
The Red Foxes will look to keep things rolling when they travel to Albany for their upcoming matchup against Siena on Friday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Edited by Bridget Reilly
Photo Credit: Luke Sassa