PITTSBURGH (AP) — Their best player on the sideline in sweats while playing their sixth straight game on the road, it would have been easy, even explainable for Niagara to play the role of pushover for Pittsburgh on Monday night.
Funny, the Purple Eagles hardly looked fatigued or intimidated. Even with leading scorer and rebounder Marvin Prochet out with an injured toe.
Hyped at the start and just steady enough at the finish, Niagara did more than hang with the Panthers. The Purple Eagles pulled off an early stunner that should bolster their confidence while dealing Pitt a reality check.
Keleaf Tate scored 17 points, James Towns added 12 points and a career-high nine assists and Niagara stunned the Panthers 71-70.
“I thought we stayed tough the entire game, together and unified the entire game,” Purple Eagles coach Chris Casey said. “We made just enough plays to come out on top.”
Niagara forward Dominic Robb, a Pittsburgh native and the nation’s leader in blocked shots, finished with 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks for the Purple Eagles (3-4), who built a 12-point second-half lead and then fended off a late rally by the Panthers.
“It meant a ton to me,” said Robb, who grew up about a half hour north of the Petersen Events Center. “I love this city. I always wanted to play here. … Getting a win here is huge for me.”
Niagara too. Picked to finish ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the Purple Eagles took the lead just before the halftime buzzer and never trailed over the final 15 minutes.
“I think they just played better than us,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “I don’t think we handled anything well tonight. I don’t think there was anything we handled well, that’s on me.”
Xavier Johnson led Pitt (7-2) with 19 points but his layup just before the buzzer rolled out. The ball was batted to midcourt as time expired and the Niagara bench erupted in joy.
Au’Diese Toney added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Panthers, but Pitt was outrebounded 38-31 and let Niagara shoot 48 percent (27 of 56) from the field, well above the 37 percent opponents had been shooting against the Panthers coming in.
“We weren’t focused,” Pitt senior guard Jared Wilson-Frame said. “We had no energy. They played way harder than us. They wanted it better than us.”
The Panthers couldn’t contain Towns, who got into the lane to set up teammates when he wasn’t knocking down shots. A step back 3-pointer by Towns gave the Purple Eagles a 58-48 lead with just over nine minutes to go and Niagara did not wilt when the Panthers turned up the pressure late.
“We expect to win every game, prepare to try and win every game,” Casey said. “Our guys are a good group. They work, what they are is resilient too. They don’t let the last thing affect the next thing.”
The Panthers came in off perhaps their best 10 minutes of the season in the second half of a 74-53 victory over Duquesne in the City Game last Friday. Pitt used a late 15-0 run to put away their crosstown rivals, relying heavily on a defense that has proven physical and disruptive early in Capel’s first season.
The swagger evaporated against Niagara. While Pitt forced 24 turnovers — several of them on charging calls in a game that featured a combined 39 fouls — the Panthers also allowed the Purple Eagles to get plenty of open looks. Too many to avoid an upset to a team that came in riding a three-game losing streak at the hands of Grambling State, St. Francis (N.Y.) and St. Francis (Pa.).
“We’ve got to get back to being us,” Wilson-Frame said. “Our identity is not what we showed on the court tonight.”
Niagara: The Purple Eagles may have a chance to exceed their modest preseason expectations once Prochet returns. They played with confidence against the more athletic Panthers. Niagara outrebounded Pitt 38-31 and outscored the Panthers in the paint 28-20.
Pitt: Capel worried about his team coming out flat against Duquesne after a tough one-point loss on the road at Iowa. It wasn’t an issue against the Dukes, and for all the enthusiasm around the program since Capel’s arrival, the roster isn’t talented enough yet to take any opponent for granted.
Niagara: Welcomes New Hampshire to the “Taps” Gallagher Center on Sunday.
Pitt: Travels to rival West Virginia on Saturday in the renewal of the Backyard Brawl.
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