With local ties, overmatched Niagara braces for NIT challenge vs. Maryland

For three seasons in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Joe Mihalich worked under legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wooten, in the shadows of College Park. On off days, he’d scamper over to College Park, where tickets awaited, reserved in the box office by another legend, Lefty Driesell.

Now, Niagara’s head coach gets a pseudo-homecoming, in the form of Tuesday’s first-round National Invitational Tournament matchup against Maryland.

“I was a big Maryland fan,” Mihalich said by phone Monday, as the Purple Eagles prepared to fly into Maryland. “Still am. But I’m not going to like them for two hours tomorrow night.”

The seventh-seeded Purple Eagles won the MAAC regular-season title behind first-team all-conference honoree Juan’ya Green. The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard shoots 40.5 percent from the field and averages 5.0 assists per game. He’s also played at least 40 minutes nine times.

“That’s because we don’t go into overtime,” Mihalich cracked. “Because then he’d play 45.”

Before Mihalich bolted for greener pastures, Wooten used to tell his protégé, “It’s not what you teach, but what you emphasize.” For the Purple Eagles, that means compensating for the nation’s 40th-youngest lineup and below-average height with a relentless pace. Niagara led the conference in ball control and turnovers forced, two categories in which Maryland struggles. They don’t press full court, but Mihalich keeps score during nearly every drill in practice. Lose a dribble, and it’s minus two points. Force a turnover or snag an offensive rebound and you get two.

Mihalich says Niagara is overmatched top to bottom against the Terps. Asked who can body up against 7-foot-1 center Alex Len, Mihalich said, “No one.” But this underdog mentality suits him just fine.

“We weren’t supposed to finish first in the conference,” Mihalich said. “We weren’t supposed to make the NIT, and we’re not supposed to beat Maryland … That’s the fun of it. That’s why we do what we do. Our guys are crazy enough to think we can win this game.”

To do so, the Purple Eagles will need sizable scoring contributions from Green (16.8 ppg) and Antoine Mason (18.5 ppg), the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason. They finished the season 2-2 against the RPI top-100, with a home win over NCAA tournament team Northwestern State.

Niagara has plenty of quirky connections. Freshman forward T.J. Cline (7.8 ppg) is the son of women’s basketball legend Nancy Lieberman. Junior reserve guard Malcolm Lemmons went to nearby Gonzaga High. Mihalich’s twin sons, Tony and Matt, coach track and field at George Mason University and basketball at O’Connell High School, respectively.

Mihalich and Coach Mark Turgeon are close in coaching circles, and the respect Turgeon expressed during Sunday’s NIT selection show is mutual.

“I admire him so much,” Mihalich said. “He’s great for the game, the total package. An off-the-charts guy, an off-the-charts coach.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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Alex Prewitt | March 18, 2013