Niagara makes it

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:02 AM ET

With 13.9 seconds left and their NCAA tournament dream realized, Juan Mendez and fellow seniors Alvin Cruz and David Brooks walked off the court to a thunderous standing ovation.

After 35 years of frustration for the Niagara University Purple Eagles basketball fans, a young man from Montreal is leading the team back to the NCAA tournament.

The best player on the court by far, Mendez scored a game-high 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting to propel the top-ranked Eagles to a 81-59 romp over the No. 2 Rider Broncs in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final before 6,543 wild Niagara fans here at HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

"This is when the team needs me, in these type of games," said the 6-foot-8 senior forward, named the MAAC tournament MVP. "You know what, I'll be a leader and I'll step up and I'll do what I'm supposed to do. I was feeling it. It's just the way I felt and nobody was going to stop me."

The Eagles are back in the big dance for the first time since ex-NBA coach/executive of the year Frank Layden and NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy took them there in 1970. As time expired, thousands of fans charged on to the court, creating a chaotic scene that Mendez, 23, must have loved.

"I'm trying to savour the moment because it doesn't come around every day," Mendez said. "I'll just enjoy it and hopefully next week, we'll get a good seed and upset someone ... A 35-year drought, that's a long time.

Losers of two of the past three MAAC finals and one-point losers in the MAAC tournament the past two years, the Eagles made it clear early history was not going to repeat itself. Mendez hit his first four shots from the field -- three on hard dunks -- and then led the Eagles on a key 16-2 run that put Niagara ahead 33-23. Finally, on an inbounds play with just over six seconds left in the half, the Eagles found a wide-open Mendez, who swished a buzzer-beating three to put Niagara up 42-30. Overall, Mendez was 8-for-10 in the first half, with 18 points and six rebounds.

When Niagara extended the lead to 21 midway through the second half, it was game over. It was Niagara's best defensive performance of the season. Mendez, meanwhile, rebounded after a sub-par effort in a semi-final win over Iona.

"Great players come up big in big games," Eagles coach Joe Mihalich said of Mendez, who also grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for his 17th double-double in the past 19 games. "He was just great. He's an all-American."

The Eagles will find out their seed -- likely No. 14 or 15 in a regional -- and first-round opponent Sunday. But Mendez isn't thinking that far ahead just yet.

"It's special because this is what I came here to do as a freshman," he said. "To finally get it done, it's a big load off my shoulders. I've just got to go to the NCAAs and play."


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