Mendez's 27 points help Purple Eagles clinch berth

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Juan Mendez can finally breathe easy. The weight of Niagara's 34-year NCAA Tournament drought is finally over.

Starting with a massive dunk, the senior forward hit 10 of his first 12 shots and finished with 27 points in leading the Purple Eagles to an 81-59 win over Rider in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship on Monday night.

The win clinched Niagara's second NCAA Tournament berth and first since 1970, when the Calvin Murphy-led Purple Eagles reached the second round. It also ended a string of frustrating close calls for a program that had lost two MAAC championship games in the last three years and three since joining the conference in 1989.

"It's huge," Mendez said. "People have been waiting 35 years for this. And we finally got it done. It's so hard to explain. I haven't been here those 35 years. But it feels like it. ... Finally getting it done, it's a big load off of my shoulders."

"We finally did it," added senior point guard Alvin Cruz.

It was extra special for Cruz to win with Mendez, teammates recruited together five years ago out of Florida Air Academy.

"He was finishing everything, he was being a leader," Cruz said. "He showed he was the best player in this conference tonight."

Lorenzo Miles had 16 points, while David Brooks scored 12 and added nine assists for Niagara (20-9), which lost 62-61 to Manhattan in last year's final. Mendez added 13 rebounds to be named the tournament's MVP.

Paul Johnson had 12 points and eight assists for Rider (19-11), which shared the regular season title with Niagara but ended up the second seed as a result of a tiebreaker. The Broncs appeared rattled in making their first championship game appearance since joining the conference in 1997.

"I felt like we were a little jittery offensively in the first half," said Broncos coach Don Harnum. "That didn't look like us out there. They were flying around the court and we really weren't."

The 22-point margin of victory was the largest in the MAAC championship game's 24-year history -- eclipsing the previous record of 15 points set four times, the last when Manhattan beat Fairfield 69-54 in 2003.

Mendez, named the MAAC player of the year on Friday, set the tone from the beginning, slamming in a pass from Miles to open the scoring 19 seconds in. Mendez also provided a physical presence, drawing a foul while using both hands to haul down Rider's Steve Castleberry, who was attempting a lay-in midway through the first half.

Mendez said he was sending a message with that play.

"They weren't going to come into our place and have it easy," Mendez said. "They're not going to do that to me in my own house and get away with it."

After exchanging leads twice in the first 10 minutes, Niagara went ahead for good, 23-21, when Cruz fed a bounce pass to Barry Durosier to complete a fast-break layup with 8:38 remaining.

Niagara led 42-30 at the half, which ended with Mendez hitting an open 3-pointer, and eventually opened a 57-37 lead when J.R. Duffey hit an open layup six minutes into the second period.

A largely partisan Purple Eagles crowd -- Niagara is located about 20 minutes from Buffalo -- stormed the court as the final buzzer sounded. It took officials almost 15 minutes to clear the court to present Niagara with its trophy.

After 34 years, the wait was worth it.

"It's a long time," said Niagara athletic director Mike Hermann. "I saw a lot of tears of joy out there."

It was a particularly special for seventh-year Purple Eagles coach Joe Mihalich, finally able to fulfill his promise to his ailing mother that she would one day see him coach in an NCAA Tournament game.

Diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003, the 80-year-old Dolores Mihalich was strong enough to make the trip to Buffalo from her home in Philadelphia and watch the final from a first-row seat behind the Niagara bench.

"I think he wanted it for everybody, not just for me," she said. "I'm as proud as a mother can be."

In the mad celebration, coach Mihalich found his mom in the stands and gave her a big hug.

"This is for everybody," Joe Mihalich said. "I couldn't be happier for Niagara university, Niagara deserves this. And I couldn't be happier for these kids."