By Jonah Bronstein
Niagara Gazette — Antoine Mason took three weeks to recover from a rolled ankle and the Niagara Purple Eagles offense is rolling once again.
Niagara stumbled into a three-game losing streak when its leading scorer began limping toward the end of that first loss, then leaned on defense and late-game guile to pull out a pair of road wins. Mason returned to the lineup for Saturday's 92-76 BracketBuster win over visiting Northwestern State, but wasn't quite himself in an evenly-matched first half with the nation's highest-scoring team.
"There were two options," Mason said. "I could've either sulked about the first half, or let the game come to me."
Mason shook off the rust shortly after halftime, splitting a double-team on the perimeter and soaring through the lane for a one-handed slam. In a matter of moments, his point total rose from four to 20, and Niagara's lead grew at the same rate.
The Purple Eagles as a whole scored 61 points on 67 percent shooting in the second half, their highest-scoring half since a 111-75 win over St. Bonaventure in 2001. They made 8-of-10 3-pointers in the period.
"We made good decisions," coach Joe Mihalich said. "Our battle cry throughout the week was if they don't pressure you, be surprised. It was to be quick but not in a hurry. That's what they want out of their press. Make you go fast, make you be out of control. Take the shot that they want you to take. And we didn't do that. We made the extra pass. We were under control against their press, and we really kind of carved it up."
Mason passed 1,000 career points midway though the second half, joining sophomore teammate Juan'ya Green in the milestone club.
Green, who also scored 20 points Saturday, said having Mason back makes a big difference for the Niagara offense.
"He's our emotional leader," Green said. "He gives us a lot of energy."
"There was some energy pickup from there," Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said. "I thought they played with a lot more purpose. By that I just mean maybe they were united, they got everyone together, they knew where they were, they knew their roles. Possibly they were feeling their way around when he was out."
Holding a one-game lead over Loyola in the MAAC standings, Niagara wanted to make sure it didn't lose the momentum gained from two road wins heading into next weekend's final homestand.
"The danger with this BracketBuster game is you take a deep breath and we're like, aww we can take it easy this week and we don't really have to work that hard, this game doesn't mean that much." Mihalich said. "But you never stay the same. You either get better or you get worse. And if we sat around all week and figured we can pick up right where we left off after beating Marist and Manhattan and be the same, we wouldn't be the same. Playing a team like this made us better."
Now entering what Mihalich called "championship week," Niagara hosts Rider on Thurdsay and Saint Peter's in Saturday's regular season finale.
Ethan O'Day scored a career-high 22 points and Vermont enjoyed a huge advantage in free throws in an 87-79 nonconference victory over Canisius on Saturday.
Vermont (18-9), of the America East Conference, made 27 of 31 free throws to 12 of 14 for the Golden Griffins (17-11), of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
The Catamounts were 9 of 9 from the line in the final 3 minutes of the first half and led 38-30 after closing the half with a 14-3 run.
They never led by fewer than five points in the second half, when O'Day, a freshman, scored 14 of his points.
Harold Washington scored 27 points to lead Canisius, which came in averaging 9.2 3-pointers per game. They made 11 of 27, but Vermont was more efficient, making 8 of 16.
Clancy Rugg and Trey Blue scored 17 points each for Vermont, and Luke Apfeld added 14.
Shane Richards scored 14 points and RaShawn Stores had 13 to lead Manhattan to a 65-64 victory over Buffalo on Saturday afternoon.
Manhattan, of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, took a 65-59 lead on Rhamel Brown's two free-throws with 3:55 left, and Buffalo scored only on Javon McCrea's jumper at 3:23 and Tony Watson II's 3-pointer with 42 seconds remaining.
Buffalo shot 21 of 38 from the field and 10 of 15 on 3-pointers to Manhattan's 21 of 50 and 5 of 11, but Manhattan made 18 of 23 free throws to Buffalo's 12 of 19 and scored 29 points off Buffalo's 24 turnovers.
Michael Alvarado contributed 11 points for Manhattan (11-16), 5-1 in its past six games.
Watson scored 24 points, McCrea had 15 with 11 rebounds and Jarryn Skeete added 11 points and 10 rebounds for Buffalo (11-16), of the Mid-American Conference, whose three-game winning streak ended.