LEWISTON, N.Y. (WIVB) — After grinding out another win in the Gallagher Center, the Niagara Purple Eagles are off to a soaring start in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference basketball play.
Niagara has won three of its first four MAAC games for the first time since 2013 — Joe Mihalich’s last season coaching on Monteagle Ridge. Pulling out a 61-59 win Monday against Rider, which was previously unbeaten atop the league standings, the Purple Eagles improved to 8-5 under fourth-year coach Greg Paulus, the program’s best record after 13 games since 2010.
“I’ve seen growth,” said Paulus, who last week received a contract extension through the 2026-27 season. “We are just trying to continue learning about ourselves, and continue to try and get better in our identity, which is still going to take some time. And we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
A half-game behind MAAC leaders Iona and Siena (both 3-0) after being picked to finish tied for eighth in the preseason coaches poll, the Purple Eagles are forming an identity as tough to top in the 74-year-old gymnasium named for legendary coach “Taps” Gallagher. They have won nine in a row at home dating to a loss against Rider on Jan. 23 of last year, and are now 24-10 at Gallagher under Paulus, 21-9 against MAAC opponents.
“It’s always important to protect your home floor,” said senior point guard Noah Thomasson, who led Niagara with 20 points, right around his home scoring average, after netting 22 in Saturday’s win over Mount St. Mary’s.
Thomasson took over down the stretch against Rider, and took over the MAAC scoring lead at 17.6 points per game. He scored 12 in the second half, finishing with a 3-pointer from the wing and a mid-range jumper in the final minute to preserve the win.
Rider’s Dwight Murray Jr. came into Monday ahead of Thomasson in the MAAC scoring race, but the Purple Eagles held him to eight points, lowering his season average to 17.
Aaron Gray added 14 points for Niagara, while Sam Iorio had 13 points and eight rebounds. The 6-foot-7 Iorio battled inside against Rider’s bigger and more physical frontline that had a 30-16 advantage in paint scoring.
“Sometimes it’s a fight,” Iorio said. “And we got the last punch at the end.”
Niagara swept its first home weekend on the MAAC schedule, in games that were pushed back by a day due to the blizzard aftermath in Western New York. Travel restrictions made it difficult for the Purple Eagles to assemble for practice before playing their first games since a Dec. 21 win against Binghamton.
“Getting the guys back was a challenge, we had guys driving across the country, over 20 hours, picking up teammates, driving to different states to pick up our guys at different airports,” Paulus said. “I expressed this after the game on Saturday, and I share it again — our thoughts are with those who were impacted in the community. For us, we are fortunate and grateful to play this game and have these opportunities.”
“Like GP always talks about,” Iorio said, “we are going to face adversity, through every aspect of your life eventually. It’s just how you respond. It was a chance for us to respond, individually and as a team. We all played a lot more connected going through something like this. It was incredible how we responded.”