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Sneakers and Sunshine just fine for Niagara, even if Cinderella's Slipper doesn't fit

By Kyle Kensing
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, March 18 2005

TUCSON - For many in Tucson, the NCAA Tournament means one thing - a chance for the UA men's basketball team to reach the Final Four and perhaps win a national championship.

Anything less than this is often considered a disappointment.

Yet, for hundreds of Division I programs, earning the right to play on college basketball's biggest stage is a reward in and of itself.

One such program is Niagara University, the 2005 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion, one of eight teams that took to Lute and Bobbi Olson Court in McKale Center this weekend for early-round NCAA tournament action.

The NU Purple Eagles punched their ticket to the school's first tournament action in 35 years March 7 with an 81-59 win over Rider University, and just the second in history.

Like MAAC teams before them, NU received a low seed on Selection Sunday, pairing the likely underdog with a national powerhouse in the first round.

MAAC teams rarely advance in the tournament, with Manhattan and Iona being the only to do so since the NCAA introduced the 64-team format in 1985, and no team from this league has ever advanced to the Final Four.

"They've got McDonald's All-Americans on their team. We've got kids who eat at McDonald's," Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich said before his team's match-up with Big 12 regular season champion and No. 3 seed Oklahoma.

To some players, the trek from the school's Eastern New York campus - where the temperature is below freezing - to mild 70-degree weather in Tucson was worth all the hard work.

"It's good to settle in, get used to the court and weather." Niagara forward Juan Mendez said at Wednesday afternoon's press conference in McKale Center. "It's good to be the underdogs,"

The Montreal-native Mendez was one of the top stories in the Tucson pod, whether the average fan knew it or not.

Despite averaging 23.6 points per game , third best in the nation, earning All-America honors from, and being the only Div. I player in the top ten in both points and rebounds, Mendez came into the tournament widely unknown.

"It's great to have the opportunity. Not all players under the radar get this opportunity," he said of being able to showcase his game before a national audience.

The Purple Eagles were the first team to take to Olson Court Wednesday for practice.

The twelve purple-clad athletes were met with the cheers of a small-in-quantity but great-in-noise audience.

"This is unbelievable," NU student Jerome Haick said of the Purple Eagles first tournament appearance since 1970. "We've had a great team all season and now being here (in the NCAA Tournament) is great."

Haick was one of about thirty NU students to make the trip from New York to Tucson, even though it meant missing three days of classes.

Niagara's spring break doesn't start until Monday.

"Honestly we'd rather be in Cleveland or Massachusetts. Here we've got 25 (students), but at one of those place we would've had half the school," he said.

Haick added that despite the travel, which included a four-hour delay because of snow in New York, he was happy to follow the team anywhere in this tournament.

The flight delay didn't just harbor NU fans. The team was also forced to wait four extra hours before making the second-furthest trip of any of the 65 teams.

"We've waited 35 years to get here, a four hour airport delay won't get our spirits down," Mihalich said.

The appearance was special for Mihalich, in his seventh season with Niagara, for more than just it being the school's second.

Mihalich's mother, 80-year-old Dolores, made the trip to Tucson despite battling colon cancer.

Dolores sat in the front row of Niagara's "End Zone" cheering section to witness the historic tangle with Oklahoma.

"She's an inspiration to me, but I hope she can also be an inspiration to anyone fighting cancer," Mihalich said.

A chorus of thousands of others joined Dolores' cheers, as the small but noisy Purple Eagles fans gained the support of every spectator in McKale Center not backing OU.

Mendez showed why Sports Illustrated featured him as one of America's five best under-the-radar performers, scoring 14 points in the first half to pace Niagara to narrow 37-34 halftime deficit, despite trailing by as many as 13.

Mendez was not alone in the spotlight, as fellow senior David Brooks, junior J.R. Duffey, and sophomore Lorenzo Miles hit key shots to keep the Purple Eagles close.

Niagara continued to claw at the Sooners in the second half, with Brooks and Mendez taking charge.

The Purple Eagles came within one point of OU with less than 12 minutes left.

Oklahoma was able to pull away in the final 10 minutes, holding Mendez without a field goal for the half.

The Sooners showed Mendez the utmost respect, double-teaming and switching defenders on the forward.

"He's got a complete package," OU forward Kevin Bookout said after Mendez's 22-point, 15-rebound performance.

Senior guard Alvin Cruz, an All-MAAC performer and NU's floor leader, was locked in a struggle with OU's Drew Lavender that ended with five minutes remaining when he fouled out.

Mihalich and Cruz joined in an emotional embrace at the NU bench in what would be the Puerto Rican-born point guard's final game in a Niagara uniform.

It was a scene OU head coach Kelvin Sampson said embodied the spirit of the NCAA Tournament.

"Coaching is about relationships, and we're judged on winning or losing. You don't see that relationship aspect in the NBA, where your emotions are laid out raw," he said.

With a minute left, and Niagara trailing by 17, Mihalich pulled Mendez and Brooks to join Cruz, and all three received a standing ovation from the McKale crowd.

"That's the beauty of being a college coach. You start with these guys who come in as young men and they leave as adults, and you help them hopefully become productive contributors to society," Mihalich said.

Niagara fell short of accomplishing their dream of being 2005's Cinderella story, but the Purple Eagles left Tucson with their heads high.

"We did something special. We made it into the tournament," Cruz said.

"As heartbroken as we are, we had our one shining moment," Mihalich said. "Let's never change this tournament."

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Sneakers and Sunshine just fine for Niagara, even if Cinderella's Slipper doesn't fit
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