Mendez critical of effort

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:10 AM ET

Juan Mendez expects greatness.

So does the Montreal-born star's coach, Joe Mihalich.

A rock-solid leader like Mendez acknowledges when he could have done more for his Niagara University Purple Eagles basketball team, even after big wins.

So it should come as no surprise that the 6-foot-8 senior forward was quick to offer self-criticism following a too-close-for-comfort 69-66 win over the Iona Gaels in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference semi-final before 6,068 jacked-up Niagara fans here at HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

"I was not mentally prepared for what was going to happen," said the top Canadian scorer in NCAA history, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds but was just 7-of-22 from the field.

"I didn't expect that to happen. I get down on myself when I don't do things I'm supposed to do for the team. I think I did just enough to help the team win."

Indeed, Mendez was in the right place at the right time with his NCAA tournament dream in jeopardy. With the shot clock off and the top-seeded Eagles up by just one, Mendez got himself in front of Gaels star Steve Burtt near the sideline. Burtt ran into Mendez and lost control of the ball, leading to a steal that pretty much clinched the game for Niagara. The No. 5 Gaels had whittled a nine-point deficit with three minutes left down to a single point.

"There was a high ball screen and Juan did a textbook job of blasting it and getting back there," Mihalich said. "Defence won it. We needed one stop to win and we did it."

Now, they need one win to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1970. The opportunity comes tonight (9 p.m., ESPN2) against the No. 2 Rider Broncs, the Eagles' third MAAC championship game in the past four seasons.

"It has been 35 years (since) we've been to the tournament," said Mendez, whose entire team looked sluggish after a seven-day layoff. "It would be a storybook ending for me and the three seniors. There's nothing more I can ask for."

OTHERS FILLED VOID

Especially after a sub-par day. Fortunately, fellow senior David Brooks stepped up and had 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting, becoming the go-to guy in the process. Mendez did more than a few good things -- two vicious dunks, key offensive rebounds and one great block on a dunk attempt -- but couldn't find his shooting touch.

"I've told Juan before, 'I'm going to treat you like an all-American,' " Mihalich said. "If you get 18 points and 13 rebounds and I feel you could have 28 points and 18 rebounds, my job is you let you know."

Mendez knows.

"Because of the fact I am the best player on the team, I am supposed to do things other players are not supposed to," Mendez said.

In his previous game at HSBC Arena, Mendez scored a career-high 37 points. If he does that again tonight, little Niagara University probably can party like it's 1970.


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