New-look Purple Eagles lock down Fairfield

Paul Battson/contributorGreg Kuakumensah, one of four senior forwards for Niagara this season, puts up a shot over a Fairfield defender during the Purple Eagles' 68-51 win Friday at the Gallagher Center.

LEWISTON — Last season, Niagara’s “forwards” included, due to injury and transfer, 6-foot-2 Steven Levnaic and 6-1 walk-on Damani Thomas. After 6-11 freshman Noah Waterman was lost to a season-ending injury, the average size of NU’s four frontcourt players was 6-4 3/4, 191.25 pounds — a touch bigger than former star guard Matt Scott.

The Purple Eagles got just 16.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game from their bigs, putting a heavy burden on their stable of guards and wings.

What a difference a year makes.

In Friday’s home debut, a 68-51 romp over Fairfield, Niagara’s core four forwards — all seniors — measured an average of 6-7 1/4, 212.5, and that’s without injured 6-11, 210-pound freshman Touba Traore. The group — Le Moyne transfer Kobi Nwandu (6-6, 210), Longwood transfer Jordan Cintron (6-8, 220) and returnees Greg Kuakumensah (6-6, 200) and Nicholas Kratholm (6-9, 220) contributed 33 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, a steal and two blocks.

Nwandu was once again Niagara's second-leading scorer, his 13 points trailing only 14 from preseason first team All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference guard Marcus Hammond. Cintron, making his NU debut after the NCAA issued blanket eligibility waivers this week, added eight points in 19 minutes. Both transfers chipped in three boards and three assists.

Kuakumensah filled up the stat sheet with eight points, five rebounds, an assist, a steal and two blocks, while Kratholm had four points and three boards.

"We have a pretty dynamic and diverse team," said Nwandu, who was with the Purple Eagles while redshirting last season. "We have a lot of guys that could do a lot of things, and we're pretty deep. So when the rotations start coming through, there's no real drop off, and there's a lot of energy."

Nine Purple Eagles saw playing time Friday and all of them had at least two points and a rebound. Coach Greg Paulus opted to play three bigs at once for most of the game, and Niagara's long-limbed defense forced 11 Fairfield turnovers and limited the Stags to 28.1% shooting.

NU held Fairfield to just three points in the final 11:16 of the first half, opening up a double-digit lead it would hold the rest of the way.

"We executed the game plan really well," Nwandu said. "We packed the paint a little bit, stayed in front of the ball. I think we guarded the post really well. Another key thing was transition defense. We didn't do a good job of it in our previous games, but we did a good job this game of getting back and staying in front."

Niagara held large advantages in points in the paint (30-16), points off turnovers (15-4) and shooting percentage (46.2%-28.1%). The Stags won the rebounding battle, 41-33, and had 11 offensive boards.

The Purple Eagles (1-3, 1-2) were due for a good outing after being crushed by Syracuse in their lone non-conference game and opening MAAC play with a pair of losses against a Saint Peter's team that finished second in the conference last season.

Friday's may have been a get-right game, but Paulus won't have to dig too deep to keep his team motivated when it hosts Fairfield again today (4 p.m., ESPN3).

The Stags (1-6, 12) dropped the first game of their opening MAAC series to Iona, 70-42, but bounced back to earn a 67-52 win the next day.

"Certainly they showed the fight and competitiveness and character within their program," Paulus said. "We know they're going to bring it. They're a very good defensive team, very well-coach by Coach (Jay) Young there. We have to be at our best to give ourselves a chance."

•••

Elsewhere in the MAAC, Seina, the unanimous pick to finish first in the preseason coaches poll, received all kinds of tough news Friday. The Saints, who have yet to play due to COVID-19, will likely not hit the court until January after announcing another pause due to multiple positive test results among the program's Tier 1 personnel. Due to the new tests, the program postponed games against Drexel (Dec. 22), Canisius (Dec. 26-27) and Towson (Dec. 29).

Sophomore Siena guard Gary Harris Jr. also entered the transfer portal Friday. The Los Angeles native averaged 5.3 points and 2.7 rebounds while appearing in all 30 games as a freshman, including 15 starts.

"We thank Gary for his contributions to the program," Siena coach Carm Maciariello said in a statement. "We are facing unprecedented and challenging times, and being closer to home is what's best for Gary at this moment."

NOTES: Traore and fellow freshman Tahjae Hill did not play. Paulus said both are nursing lower-body injuries. Traore dressed to play, but Hill was in streets. ... Junior Raheem Solomon returned after missing the Saint Peter's series with a lower-body injury. He played nine minutes off the bench.

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