Niagara Wins NCAA Play-In Game

Tuesday, March 13th 2007, 10:01 pm

By: News On 6

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) _ Clif Brown's career night made the NCAA play-in game feel less like a consolation prize. For Niagara, it felt like history. The senior forward with the gentle touch scored 32 points and made a career-high six 3-pointers Tuesday night, leading the Purple Eagles to a 77-69 victory over Florida A&M in the play-in game.

Niagara (23-11) hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1970. Even though this one fell under the heading of play-in, it felt like a breakthrough.

``Our first NCAA tournament win in 37 years,'' coach Joe Mihalich said. ``It's a little mark in the history book. No asterisk, as far as I'm concerned.''

It was a start. The Purple Eagles will head to Chicago for a game Friday against Kansas, the top seed in the West Regional. No play-in winner has gone on to knock off a No. 1 team. In fact, no 16 seed has beaten a No. 1.

``We just look for the next task, keep moving, keep making history,'' said forward J.R. Duffey, who had six points.

Florida A&M (21-14) didn't bring a pep band or cheerleaders, and didn't have a way to stop Brown, who scored 24 points while the Purple Eagles pulled away in the second half. His big game _ one shy of his career high for points _ made up for Charron Fisher's rough night. Niagara's leading scorer spent much of the second half on the bench in foul trouble.

``Our team never knows who's going to be the guy,'' said Brown, who finished 10-of-18 from the field and 6-of-11 from behind the arc. ``I hit a few shots in the first half and I was still feeling pretty good, so I took a few more and it turned out good.''

The Rattlers couldn't even rally after Brown helped them by accidentally tipping a rebound into their basket.

``What Clif did tonight was exceptional,'' Mihalich said. ``There's always a chance he can do that. He shoots the ball well and he's hard to guard.''

Fisher, known for his role in the attack of a Niagara baseball player last year, finished with 13 points. Darius Glover scored 15 points for Florida A&M, which went only 4-of-17 from behind the arc and 7-of-18 from the free-throw line.

Neither team particularly wanted to be here.

Leading up to selection Sunday, Florida A&M coach Mike Gillespie lobbied for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champs to avoid the play-in game. Instead, he wound up booking arrangements to Dayton for the second time in four years.

Afterward, he lobbied for change.

``Let the last two at-large teams come to this game,'' Gillespie said. ``We won our tournament. We didn't finish second or third. We didn't lose in the first round. All the games we won, the tournament we won, and we still had to come here.''

Niagara wasn't thrilled about its trip to Dayton, either. Mihalich was stunned and befuddled that the Metro Atlantic champions got sent to the play-in. Fisher said the Purple Eagles were ``disrespected'' and would play like it on Tuesday.

Like it or not, they made the tournament's first impression. Fans at the University of Dayton Arena held up signs that read, ``Go No. 64 Seed'' and ``Go No. 65 Seed,'' summing up a game with no local rooting interest beyond the novelty.

They'd seen one of these teams before.

Florida A&M beat Lehigh in the 2004 play-in game, when the Rattlers were the only team in the field with a losing record. This time, they were on a much better tear, topping the 20-win mark for the first time in 18 years.

One thing worked against them: The play-in was their fourth game in seven days. By contrast, Niagara had a week off after wrapping up its conference tournament title with its 11th straight victory.

The Rattlers looked tired, missing their first eight 3-point shots while going 3-of-20 from the field. The slump allowed Niagara to pull ahead 20-7, with Fisher leading the way. Playing like he had a chip on his shoulder, the bulky power forward had a tip-in for the game's first basket, a putback and a 22-foot 3-pointer during the opening flurry.

E.J. Maul finally got the Rattlers going with a pair of fast-break layups, sparking a 16-5 spurt. L.C. Robinson's 3-pointer gave Florida A&M its only lead at 31-29 with 2:43 left in the half.

The Rattlers again lost their shooting touch at the start of the second half. Duffey hit a 15-foot jumper and Brown made a 3-pointer that put Niagara back in control at 44-36.

With Fisher sitting on the bench after picking up his third foul, Brown had a tip-in and another 3 that rebuilt the lead to double-digits with 14 minutes to go. Every time Florida A&M put a couple of baskets together, Brown made a shot that stopped the run.

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