A roller coaster season ends with a deflating defeat in Albany

Kriby Paulson and Ryan Chichester

Photo: Samantha Bashaw
Photo: Samantha Bashaw

Three times turned out to be the charm for the Niagara Purple Eagles as they bounced Quinnipiac from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday, pulling away late for an 88-69 win. The win was the first for the Purple Eagles in three tries this season and sent the Bobcats home to reflect on what was an overall frustrating season.

The 2016-17 season ends with a similar frustration as when the season began. The Bobcats stumbled out of the gates to start this regular season, dropping their first four contests as they struggled to find a sense of identity. The Bobcats failed to score 80 points in a game until game five of the season, which not surprisingly resulted in their first win against Indiana State.

Quinnipiac seemed to turn the corner by rattling off four wins in six games after their rocky start to the season and entered the New Year with a sense of promise. The Bobcats posted at least 80 points in three of those wins as the offense began to take shape.

Spearheading the optimism in Hamden was a pair of young studs in the form of freshmen Peter Kiss and Mikey Dixon, who steadily progressed throughout the season. The duo rose from bench players with limited minutes to the Bobcats’ strongest offensive force. The pair of youngsters finish their freshmen seasons as the team’s top two scorers, as well as unanimous choices for the MAAC All-Rookie Team. Only three pairs of freshman combined to score more than Kiss and Dixon this season; those pairs come from Kentucky, UCLA and St. Johns. Not too shabby to be mentioned in the same breath as those premier basketball programs.

Despite the offensive boost from the underclassmen, the Bobcats struggled to find any kind of consistent defense. The Bobcats entered the tournament last in the conference in total defense, giving up an average of 83 points per game.

Still, the Bobcats hovered around the .500 mark in conference play through the month of January, trying desperately to find a sense of consistency.

January closed with three straight losses. Back-to-back thrilling victories to begin February rejuvenated morale, only to be followed by six straight losses to close the regular season. Up and down they went.

The Achilles heel for the Bobcats was formulating a balanced attack on both ends of the floor. When the offense exploded for 107 points against Rider in mid-February, the defense sputtered by surrendering 112. When the defense provided a more respectable effort by allowing 76 points against St. Peters the offense was nonexistent in a 45-point effort.

The Bobcats’ free-fall down the stretch of the season should not just be attributed to poor play. Injury, illness and tragedy all plagued the Bobcats heading into the MAAC Tournament. The Bobcats boasted one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the conference until senior Donovan Smith was lost for the season due to a broken foot. Smith was third on the team in offensive rebounds and second in defensive boards. Meanwhile, Kiss battled the flu bug towards the end of the season and struggled to stay 100 percent. The Bobcats also lost their fourth leading scorer in Reggie Oliver for the MAAC Tournament due to a family tragedy. The road to Albany was certainly an uphill climb.

The Bobcats provided a pleasant surprise on the defensive end with a strong first half outing against Niagara on Thursday, but were unable to maintain that intensity as the Purple Eagles began to impose their will in the paint and get to the free throw line, which has been their bread and butter all season. The void of Smith proved too much to fill as Niagara ran away in the second half, closing the book on the Bobcats’ season. Quinnipiac finished with an overall record of 10-21, including a brutal record of 3-10 on the road.

The mood at the Bobcats’ press conference following the loss was somber and disappointing. However, rays of hope and promise could be seen throughout the season. The Bobcats will boast a lethal trio in Kiss, Dixon and Chaise Daniels when next season arrives. The youngsters will be one year older and one year wiser, ready to lift the Bobcats out of numerous years of mediocrity.