Mendez soars with Eagles

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

The script seems to be unfolding perfectly for Juan Mendez. The leading Canadian scorer in NCAA Division 1 basketball history is two wins away from leading his Niagara Purple Eagles to a place they haven't been since 1970 -- the 64-team NCAA championship tournament.

Little Niagara University -- a 3,689-student Catholic school in the border town of Lewiston, N.Y., that is home to 416 Canadian students -- is the top seed at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament in Buffalo. The Eagles (18-9), who face the No 5 Iona Gaels in a semi-final game today (2 p.m.) at HSBC Arena, will ride the shoulders of the 6-foot-8 Montreal-born senior forward.

"We're so excited to be here," Mendez, the MAAC player of the year, said. "It's in (nearby) Buffalo and we've got a bye to the semi-final. Everything is going our way."

The stage is set for a dream finish to Mendez's college career.

The Manhattan Jaspers, who eliminated the Eagles the past two seasons, were knocked out last night with a 62-60 loss against the No. 3 Fairfield Stags. Fairfield will meet No. 2 Rider in the other semi-final today (4 p.m.)

ESPN2 will show the MAAC championship game to all of the United States tomorrow (9 p.m.). Earlier this week, the Eagles were featured in a sports section cover story in USA Today. Eagles coach Joe Mihalich's mother, Dolores, has colon cancer, but will make the trip to Buffalo from her home in Philadelphia to watch the tournament.

"I tell him all the time, 'This is the year we've got to do it, Joe,' " Dolores told USA Today. "He wants it for his team, and he wants it for himself. And I know he wants it for me."

Mendez's mom, Maritza, who raised 12 kids is making the trip from Montreal to watch her son. Juan Mendez, her sixth child, is the first to attend university.

"I want them to win. I'm praying for them to win," Maritza said. "My son is doing great. I'm very, very proud of him."

National team coach Leo Rautins also will be watching Mendez, who is third in the NCAA in scoring.

"When you're putting up the numbers he's putting up, I don't care what conference you're in, you have game," Rautins said.

In the Eagles' only previous NCAA tournament appearance in 1970, NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy was the team's main man.

"Every college player dreams about going to the tournament," Mendez said.

With two more wins, that dream will come true.

BRIEFLY

The Canisius Golden Griffins women's team, featuring Canadians Megan Lyte (Midhurst), Jessie Lamparski (Hamilton) and Katie Thorner (Sarnia), will face the Marist Red Foxes in the MAAC women's final today (11 a.m.)


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