SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Chilean folklorist Violeta Parra once sang, "Don't cry when the sun is gone, because the tears won't let you see the stars."
The Niagara Purple Eagles had their hearts broken here Sunday. The sun set on their Big Dance dreams during a 79-73 loss to Iona in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
But the youngest team in the MAAC has a bright future ahead. And it won't have to wait too long to try and realize it.
Niagara (19-13) is on its way to the National Invitation Tournament now, its consolation prize for winning the MAAC regular season championship.
"Our hearts are broken," coach Joe Mihalich. "At the same time, as I said to the guys, there's a lot of people whose hearts are broken and they turned their uniforms in.
"We're going to a special postseason tournament. And we are going to let the pain wear away. And if I know these guys, they will set a new set of goals to do something special in the NIT."
Niagara has appeared in the NIT 13 times before, most recently in 2009 after winning a school-record 26 games before losing in the MAAC final.
"We are going to wake up in a day or two and just be tickled to death, excited as can be to be in such a prestigious postseason tournament," Mihalich said. "It's an incredible accomplishment for this team. We're as heartbroken as can be. The dream season is to be cutting down the nets. But to be in the NIT is something to be proud of."
The Purple Eagles weren't proud of their performance as the top seed in the MAAC tournament. After rallying late to beat Siena in the quarterfinals, Niagara fell flat offensively in the second half against Iona.
And it was the shooting stars who let them down.
All-MAAC point guard Juan'ya Green trudged his way to 11 points in 40 minutes, shooting 5 of 17 from the floor and missing all seven of his 3-point attempts.
"Nothing was clicking," Green said. "On my shots, I just was fading and leaning toward the right. I just didn't have a good night shooting."
Antoine Mason, Niagara's other all-conference sophomore, poured in 16 points in the first half but had just five in the second on 1 of 8 shooting. He was called for a charge with 6:17 left to play, and the Gaels, leading by nine at that point, said later that was the point they knew the game was won.
"We just didn't hit (shots) in the second half," Mason said. "First half, everything was going in."
The Purple Eagles were overmatched inside against Iona's David Laury (20 points, 17 rebounds) and wound up taking 33 of their 69 field goals from 3-point range. Mihalich conceded that was a few too many.
"I'll be staring at the ceiling tonight thinking about a thousand things we could've done and that's one of them," he said. "But you know what else we could've done, we could've made some of those shots. Not to be a wiseguy, but I thought we had some pretty good looks from guys who can make shots and we didn't knock them down."
Marvin Jordan had a solid game (11 points, six assists, no turnovers) starting in place of Tahjere McCall (knee), but Mihalich said the Purple Eagles missed their precocious freshman.
"The fact is our starting point guard didn't play," Mihalich said. "He gives us 23 minutes of terrific perimeter defense. It gives Juan'ya a chance to get off the ball and not have to do as much. The team we put on the floor wasn't as good as the team that scored 79 points today. We missed him a lot."
Ameen Tanksley contributed 14 points and five rebounds. T.J. Cline had 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Starting center Devon White played just 12 minutes, but chipped in with five points and six rebounds. Take away Green and Mason, and the Purple Eagles shot 50 percent from the field.
MAAC Player of the Year MoMo Jones had 11 of his 17 points in the second half for Iona, and defended Mason down the stretch. Taaj Ridley scored 16 points, Sean Armand had 13 and Tavon Sledge was credited with shutting down Green, after giving up the game-winner to him in the team's February matchup at the Gallagher Center.
Iona will meet sixth-seeded Manhattan tonight in the MAAC championship game. Niagara will learn its NIT opponent on Sunday night.
"Put this behind us and get back to work," Green said. "And try to win the NIT."