Antoine Mason heads to Auburn

By Nick Veronica

auburnlogoFormer Niagara standout Antoine Mason announced in a series of tweets today that he’ll play his final year of college basketball at Auburn.

Mason led in the country in scoring average for much of last season before being passed by Creighton stud Doug McDermott. Mason finished the year averaging 25.6 points per game while hitting 44.0 percent of field goals.

Mason graduated from Niagara in the spring and will be eligible immediately. He’ll have to adapt to a more team-centric role under Bruce Pearl at Auburn. Mason had one of the country’s greenest lights last season under first-year coach Chris Casey.

Mason had his father, former NBAer Anthony Mason, call Casey in May to inform him that Antoine was transferring. Casey had said the week before that Mason was going to return to Niagara.

Here’s what Mason tweeted after his visit to Auburn last weekend:

And here’s what he tweeted Wednesday:

Mason was reportedly deciding between Auburn and Providence. His hashtag #chiponmyshoulder in the first tweet may be a reference to being left off the All-MAAC First Team last season. The league’s coaches apparently felt Niagara’s poor record was a reflection on the player its offense revolved around.

Auburn finished 12th in the 14-team SEC last year, going 6-12 in conference and 14-16 overall.

Simon Gray named Niagara athletic director

By Nick Veronica / @NickVeronica

Niagara University introduced Simon Gray as its new athletic director Friday morning, filling the void created by the dismissal of Tom Crowley in September. Steve Butler served as the interim AD for the last eight months and will return to his position of Associate Athletic Director for External Relations.

Gray, 37, comes to Niagara from Eastern Kentucky University of the Ohio Valley Conference, where he had worked since 2005. He most recently served as the school’s acting athletic director. Gray’s 15 years in college athletics include stops at Richmond, East Tennessee State and Boston College. A native of Pittsburgh’s North Hills, Gray has a bachelor’s degree from Richmond and a master’s from EKU.

His upbeat personality and outgoing nature were on display at this morning’s press conference and should be well-received by the Niagara community. His first official day on the job is June 23. Below are Gray’s responses to questions about various issues facing Niagara, arranged in no particular order.

What attracted Gray to Niagara:

Gray: “I’ve certainly followed Niagara athletics. I’m a sports nut. I follow college sports, always followed it very closely. So I’ve known about the success they’ve had. Working in the business, you follow it even closer. I certainly followed when Ed [McLaughlin, now the AD at VCU] was here and knew all that he had done. I followed the men’s basketball success, the hockey success, some of the other successes. That’s what I knew about Niagara University when applying.”

He added that Niagara’s mission “aligns perfectly with what I want to do, which is raise the success, keep the success going academically and athletically, but also to help raise the profile of the university. That’s what I think the No. 1 priority of an athletics department is, to help the university.”

If Niagara has lost some ground locally of late, and how to rectify that:

Gray: “I can’t speak to that because I don’t know. All I can tell you is this: from the people I’ve met at this university, as high up as it goes in the executive leadership, I think they value athletics and know what athletics can do. How they feel about what’s happened in the recent past, I haven’t gotten into that. But I think you can tell from me, I’m all about energy and enthusiasm and passion moving forward, and I feel that sense on this campus.”

His first impression of men’s basketball coach Chris Casey and the job he did last season:

Gray: “Chris Casey is an exceptional man. He is very sharp, he’s very positioned, he’s direct, he’s ambitious, he knows what it’s going to take to win here. The more I’ve learned about the situation — I followed the team, obviously, last year, I know they beat Buffalo, that was big for the program — but they ended up with seven wins. I think the credit to him is that they were in many games, including late in the season. When you only have six or seven wins coming down to the end of the season, it’s very easy for people to lose their motivation. So it’s a tremendous credit to him that he was able to keep the team together and motivate them and stay in and be right on the brink of winning more games than seven. I’ve been impressed with his basketball knowledge, I’ve ben impressed with him as a person. I was able to meet his family last night. I think a brilliant future [is] ahead.

(Casey also told me Friday that leading scorer Antoine Mason is definitely returning to the team. Mason received his degree this spring and wouldn’t have had to sit out a year if he transferred. “I got to sit down with my parents and talk it over,” he told the Buffalo News in March.)

On Niagara’s facilities: 

Gray: “I think that’s one area I’ve noticed and one area we talked about during the search process was the facility challenges. And let me tell you, that’s not foreign to other places. There are a lot of institutions in a similar boat. What I see as my job is to prioritize. One of the things I’m going to be doing very early on as the AD is getting input from the people who are already here. I have to take what the coaches think will make their programs better, then I have to sit down with the executive leadership and prioritize where we can get better. But facilities is an area that we will concentrate on.”

Status of the men’s hockey program and its place in Atlantic Hockey:

Gray noted his introduction to college hockey came while at Boston College, but said “I’m not as well versed as I will be very soon” on Niagara’s hockey situation.

He added: “What Union College did, it can be done, and it can be done at a national championship level. What we need to do is make sure our hockey program has the right resources to be successful and then we’ll look at the conference for sure.” (Union, which doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, won the national championship this year while other Frozen Four teams had budgets several times what Union spent.)

If he played sports collegiately and what his favorite sport is:

Gray said he plays racquetball recreationally and runs but didn’t play anything collegially. He said he loves all sports. His wife, Anne-Christine, was a collegiate golfer at East Tennessee State.

(Photo: Niagara athletic director Simon Gray (center) with president Rev. James Maher, C.M., his wife, Anne-Christine, and their three daughters.)

Niagara upsets Marist, Saint Peter’s wins in OT, Rider advances

By Nick Veronica

Antoine Mason scored 38 points to lead 11th-seeded Niagara to a 78-76 upset of 6-Marist late Thursday night in the play-in round of the MAAC Tournament.

The Purple Eagles led by as many as 24 points in the second half but had to hold on as Chavuaghn Lewis led a rally to get Marist back within two points on several occasions in the final 90 seconds. Lewis finished with 26 points and Khallid Hart had 20. Marcus Ware chipped in with 14 points for the Purps (7-25).

Niagara will face third-seeded Quinnipiac at 9 p.m. Saturday.

In other play-in round action, Saint Peter’s needed overtime to dispatch No. 10 Fairfield, 65-62. Desi Washington hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the game. He led the Peacocks with 14 points while Maurice Barrow came off the bench to lead Fairfield with 14 points.

Danny Stewart had 25 points and 9 rebounds to lead Rider past Monmouth, 71-60.

Here’s what the bracket looks like for Saturday’s quarterfinals (click to expand):

maactrn2014

Notes:

  • Canisius meets Siena at 2:30 Saturday. Saints freshman Lavon Long: “Stop Baron, and we’re most likely going to win.”
  • Billy Baron: “Canisius is home now. It’s a small school with a big heart.”
  • Canisius is last in the conference in rebounding. What does that mean for the tournament?
  • Looks like the Niagara women were on the wrong end of some bad officiating. The Canisius women open at 2:30 p.m. Friday against Quinnipiac.
  • MAAC awards are announced Friday night. My picks:
    • Player of the Year: Billy Baron, Canisius. It’s between Baron and Manhattan’s George Beamon, but Baron’s the guy.
    • Rookie of the Year: Khallid Hart, Marist.
    • Coach of the Year: Tom Moore, Quinnipiac.
    • Sixth Player of the Year: Maurice Barrow, Marist (close between him and Siena’s Evan Hymes).
    • Defensive Player of the Year: It’s a crapshoot, really. I’d guess Chris Perez is in the mix but I don’t know. Manhattan’s Rhamel Brown is third nationally in blocks so lets go with him.

I’m heading down for the tournament this weekend. Check back for live blogs and coverage of all the action here and on Twitter. 

Postgame interviews: Canisius 71, Niagara 65

By Nick Veronica

Both Canisius players and coach Jim Baron sent well-wishes to Chris Manhertz and discussed the deeper meaning of Canisius’ 71-65 victory over Niagara, which gave Canisius its first season sweep in the series since the 1994-95 season.

Niagara’s press conference was quiet. Niagara led most of the game but lost the lead late, and Antoine Mason said there was no time he really felt the game slip away.

Canisius players Billy Baron and Chris Perez

Canisius coach Jim Baron

Niagara players and coach Chris Casey

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Immediate reactions: Canisius 71, Niagara 65

By Nick Veronica

How it happened: Niagara was ahead for most of the night but Billy Baron led Canisius back into the game with 21 points in the second half. Chris Perez was valuable as well, attacking the hoop for 17 points. Canisius led at 4-2 and then not again until 57-56, but was able to recover to sweep the season series from Niagara for the first time since 1994-95.

Canisius was dreadful from three-point range, making only 4 of 20 attempts, but finished the game well. Niagara led 61-58 with 5:56 remaining but was outscored 13-4 the rest of the way.

What it means: Canisius snaps a two game losing streak and keeps pace with Manhattan and Quinnipiac (11-4), who are all tied for second place in the MAAC behind Iona (14-2). Billy Baron finishes his career 2-0 at the Gallagher Center. Niagara falls to 3-12 in conference.

Manhertz out again: Chris Manhertz missed his second consecutive game with a broken nose. He is still dealing with pain and didn’t feel well Friday so he did not make the trip to the Gallagher Center. Jim Baron said later that Manhertz has hardly left his campus dorm room. The procedure to reset his nose was successful, I was told, but he has not yet returned to practice. Phil Valenti started again in Manhertz’s place. Total rebounds were 45-38 Niagara.

Scoring watch: Mason, who leads the country at 26.3 ppg, finished with 17 points. Baron, who entered the game ranked fifth at 23.6, scored 34.

Action for Bleeker: Kevin Bleeker didn’t play in either game last weekend despite having a short bench but played 16 minutes tonight as Jordan Heath and Phil Valenti were in early foul trouble. That was only two minutes off his season high, but he didn’t put up much on the scoresheet. He finished with three rebounds.

MAAC outlook: Canisius improves to 11-4 with five games left on the conference schedule; the top five teams get first-round byes at the MAAC tournament. This matches Canisius’ conference win total from year.

Baron’s tie was not purple: I spent a chuck of the game talking with people about Jim Baron’s tie. My seat was toward the Niagara end of the press table and from there it really looked like he was wearing a purple tie. Several people, both in attendance and watching on ESPN, mentioned they thought it was purple and didn’t think that was a good look for the Canisius coach. One person on Twitter said there were “definitely some violet hues going on.” But I had a perfect view when Baron came over to the table for his post-game radio interview. Crisis averted. (Of course, that tweet should say personal, not person.)

Next game: Canisius plays at Siena, 2 p.m. Sunday.

(Oh, and this happened tonight. Seriously.)