The Loyola Greyhounds, trying to snap out of a streak of mediocrity, produced mixed reviews again yesterday.
They took ill-advised shots, suffered numerous defensive lapses and ran into a young, struggling Niagara team that proved to be a tough opponent. But the Greyhounds got another strong game from their steadiest player and rediscovered their shooting touch at the foul line.
Junior forward B. J. Pendleton scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds -- both game highs -- and the Greyhounds converted their final 10 free throws, breaking open a close game in the final two minutes to defeat the Purple Eagles, 70-62, before 1,240 at Reitz Arena.
"We have volumes left to learn. We made some decisions that were just mind-boggling," said Loyola coach Skip Prosser. "Sometimes, I wish we could practice for 10 hours a day. I'm not sure we answered the challenge today, but the kids had enough poise to put them away."
The Greyhounds (11-7, 4-4), stuck in the middle of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings, won for the fifth time in their past nine games. Tomorrow, they will try for their first two-game winning streak in nearly a month against visiting Canisius.
Loyola found a stubborn opponent in last-place Niagara (3-16, 0-7), which starts three freshmen, dresses only nine players and is basically a shell of the team that won 23 games last year. The Purple Eagles shook off their inexperience, however, and shook up the Greyhounds.
Led by Chris Watson (14 points, seven rebounds) and David Bertram (13 points), Niagara bolted to a 19-8 lead, saw Loyola come back to take a 37-36 lead at halftime, then stood toe-to-toe with the Greyhounds for most of the second half.
But Loyola's defense, which forced 21 turnovers, tightened its grip down the stretch, limiting Niagara to 10 points over the last 8 1/2 minutes.
And after Carlos Bradberry made a difficult baseline jumper to pull the Purple Eagles within 64-61 with 1:45 left, the Greyhounds hit their last six free throws, four by Tracy Bergan (15 points), to seal the win.
"If all five guys on the floor have a good night, we'll be an exciting team to watch. We haven't had that yet," said Pendleton, who did his part by making seven of eight shots and grabbing five offensive rebounds.
"I think Loyola walked out of here breathing a sigh of relief. We gave them everything they could handle," Niagara coach Jack Armstrong said. "We didn't do some little things down the stretch. We missed some free throws, made some turnovers. But we battled today."
Loyola shot 46.8 percent from the field. The Greyhounds were most impressive at the foul line, where they slipped badly in Wednesday's 90-87 overtime loss to St. Peter's. Yesterday, Loyola made 23 of 29 free throws (79.3 percent).
Pendleton's 11 first-half points were the key to Loyola's comeback from a sluggish start. He scored five of Loyola's first seven points of the second half to push the Greyhounds to a 44-39 lead with 15:03 left. The Greyhounds never trailed after that.
After tomorrow's Canisius game, Loyola will embark on a critical five-game road trip. That stretch should provide some hints of how Loyola might fare at next month's MAAC tournament in Albany, N.Y.
"Two or three months ago, I wasn't sure we would have a critical part of the season," Prosser said.