By Paul Gotham
SPRINGFIELD, MA – To advance in the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, the Niagara Purple Eagles needed to slow Siena’s OD Anosike. No small task considering Anosike had 17 double-doubles on the season and 45 for his career coming into Saturday afternoon’s game at the MassMutual Center.
Friday night the Siena power forward seemed to embrace destiny. Anosike got to the basket with his signature baseline drop step and add in a few powerful putbacks finishing with 24 points and 12 rebounds. He looked like a senior not ready to go home.
The youthful Purple Eagles, carrying the burden of the conference’s top seed, found a solution.
Using a committee of three Niagara held Anosike in check.
Devon White started the game on Anosike, but the Niagara senior forward picked up his second foul less than four minutes into the game
Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich turned to his bench, and they delivered.
“We were just trying to throw the kitchen sink at him,” Mihalich said. “He’s a load. He’s a tough guy to guard. I don’t care if you’re us or anybody else.”
Freshman T.J. Cline and red shirt sophomore Joe Thomas grabbed the reins from there.
“We got three centers who can do a great job,” Cline said. “We worked all week because we knew we had to play either (Marist’s Adam) Kemp or Anosike, and they’re both all-league kind of guys. We really worked on post defense all week.”
Friday night Anosike hit nine-of-21 shots. Saturday against Niagara the senior made just six-of-eight.
“It’s all about not letting him catch the ball,” Cline added. “That’s what we tried to do, and it worked out.”
With his teammates playing Niagara’s match-up zone, Cline battled Anosike inside as the Saints tried to move the ball from side to side in an effort to get their teammate the ball.
“He loves to lower the shoulder and go,” Cline explained. “He also loves to spin. We watched film. Our coaches did a great job watching film and telling us his moves, so we kind of had a sense of what he was going to do. We trapped on his dribble. Our coaches put in a great game plan.”
Cline and Thomas were part of a Niagara bench which outscored Siena’s 27-12 as part of 74-62 Purple Eagles victory.
Cline’s three with 11:57 remaining in the game stopped an 8-0 Siena run. The Plano, Texas native ran a pick-and-pop with Ameen Tanksley and hit a three for a 47-42 Niagara edge. He tallied nine points on four-of-nine shooting and four rebounds.
Thomas added six on three-of-four shooting. He converted a rebound and putback and took a Malcolm Lemmons feed on the break for a layup staking the Purple Eagles to a 23-15 edge in the first half.
“I thought that if we have an unsung hero today it might have been Joe Thomas,” Mihalich stated. “He came in and had a couple of buckets and banged it around a little bit.”
The Purple Eagles advance to play the Iona Gaels in the Sunday’s semi-finals. Tip off at the MassMutual Center is 2:30 p.m.