LEWISTON, N.Y. (WIVB) — Crossing bridges in the midst of a winter storm warning to battle one of the most intense pressure systems in NCAA women’s basketball on Wednesday night, Canisius guard Dani Haskell detailed the difficult task of trying to dribble near the Niagara escarpment these days.
“It’s a defense like no one else plays, for sure,” Haskell said following Niagara’s 82-70 win Wednesday night at the Gallagher Center. “How aggressive and physical it is, you don’t see it that often.”
Niagara’s kleptomaniacal defense leads the nation in takeaways for the second season in a row, averaging 15.1 steals and 29.2 opponent turnovers. The havoc has induced a six-game win streak, and the Purple Eagles (9-9) have won eight of nine following a 1-8 start. They are 8-2 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the first time since 2000, second in the league standings.
The ballhawking style has been fortified by the pipeline from nearby Cardinal O’Hara, two offseason additions making Niagara the only Division I team with five players from the same high school.
After point guard Angel Parker led the country in steals a year ago, and is among the top 25 again this year swiping 2.9 this season, her sister Aaliyah Parker now ranks second nationally with 3.9. Nickelle O’Neil, the Saint Peter’s transfer at the point of attack in Niagara’s press, is among the top 40 at 2.6. Along with freshman Jade Rutledge (1.1), the four Hawks in the Purple Eagles’ starting lineup have generated about two-thirds of the turnover production.
“Very chaotic,” is how Aaliyah Parker described the Purple Eagles’ aggressive defense. “Everybody is everywhere. Just very extreme.”
The Purple Eagles have forced 30 or more turnovers in 10 of 18 games, so the Golden Griffins were actually encouraged by committing only 20, the fewest by any Niagara opponent yet this season.
“Twenty is still too many, but against a team like Niagara, 20 is like 15 against a normal opponent,” said Canisius coach Sahar Nusseibeh, who is now 0-3 in the Battle of the Bridge rivalry series.
“There’s always going to be two on the ball, or two very close to the ball,” said Haskell, who battled nightly double-teams while becoming the area’s all-time leading scorer at Franklinville. “It’s very important to keep your eyes up, but know there are going to be people right there.”
“In prep, as coaches, we were laughing. We’ve seen people turn it over 30-plus times,” Neusseibeh said. “They’re trying to scare you, and if you can handle it, you are going to have a walk-in layup, or you are going to have a rotation where you find an open shooter.”
Canisius executed its offensive plan, with only three turnovers in the first quarter, but could hardly make a shot in falling behind 38-16 midway through the second. The Golden Griffins began fight back before halftime, exciting Nusseibeh, and they outscored the Purple Eagles 54-44 over the final 25 minutes.
“You have to have fight, it’s an imperative, it’s a must against a team like Niagara,” Neusseibeh said. “Because if you don’t, they are going to come at you, and use and abuse you. And it’s going to be a very long game.”
Niagara gets more than 40% of its points off turnovers, and while Canisius fared well in limiting that number to 27%, the Purple Eagles often enough created scoring chances in flashes of brilliance on both ends of the floor.
“It just gives us life,” said Angel Parker, who led Niagara with 21 points, four above her season average that ranks second in the MAAC. “It pumps us up. We’re getting it easy when our defense turns to offense, and that’s what we preach.”
Parker pocketed five steals, her fourth game in a row with at least four. She dazzled with a long assist pass and a driving layup off steals in succession, and another one she snatched and spun into a baseline jumper, inspiring the Niagara men’s basketball players watching court-side to bounce from their seats.
“It’s amazing having their support,” Parker said. “It brings a lot to us as a team. We try to get to each other, and just having them there gives us more.”
Haskell scored 19 for Canisius and is now averaging 22 points in three games against Niagara. She’s eager for the rematch at Koessler Center on Feb. 15.
“I love when it’s super loud, you can’t hear anything, the crowd brings you energy,” Haskell said. “It doesn’t end in our favor, but I think, I know, at home we can get them.”
Still, the Purple Eagles are hungry to achieve more, coach Jada Pierce said. After reaching the MAAC semifinals a year ago, Niagara aspires to win the program’s first championship. Commitment to tenacious defense is the guiding force.
“We have amped it up more,” said Pierce, noting Niagara’s increase from a national-best 13.3 steals average and six games last season forcing 30-plus turnovers. “We have added a few pieces that have helped us be a little more athletic, a little quicker to spots.”
“Defense is our bread and butter,” Parker said. “Collectively as a team, we are being more aggressive. That’s what is making us successful, that we are all rotating and on the same page.”
Amidst uncommon success, Pierce said the Purple Eagles “still have a ways to go.”
“We haven’t played 40 minutes of really good basketball yet,” Pierce said.
“We definitely have higher standards in how we want to do things, especially if we want to win a MAAC championship.”