9:00 PM ET, March 8, 2004
Times Union Center, Albany, New York
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Luis Flores could forget the two free throws he missed in the clutch. They didn't matter a few seconds later when he jumped into the stands to celebrate after Manhattan clinched its second straight NCAA tournament berth.The Jaspers held off a late Niagara surge to beat the Purple Eagles 62-61 on Monday, claiming a second consecutive Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament title.Flores scored 14 points and became Manhattan's all-time leading scorer, but it was the two free throws he missed with 10 seconds left that almost cost the Jaspers.Niagara got the ball back, but Tremmell Darden had difficulty finding an open hole to get off a shot. After slipping to the floor, Darden got back up and sent up an awkward 18-footer that fell short as the buzzer sounded."I definitely feel much better," said Flores, chosen the tournament's most valuable player. "The fact that we got a stop, it was more like relief, and then as I realized what happened, it was celebration."Flores contributed on the final play, getting a hand in to distract Darden."I was thinking, 'Man, I've got to come up with something.' I tried to get a steal at the end, and hopefully my distracting Darden helped us," Flores said. "I had to come up with something."Dave Holmes scored 16 points to lead Manhattan (24-5), which earned its sixth NCAA tournament berth and third MAAC title. The Jaspers became the fifth team to win back-to-back championships in the tournament's 23-year history, the first since Iona won in 2000 and '01.Juan Mendez scored 26 points for Niagara (21-9), which is 0-3 in MAAC championship games, and squandered an opportunity for the school's second NCAA tournament berth, and first since 1970. It was also Niagara's second loss to Manhattan in the championship game: The Jaspers beat the Purple Eagles 68-67 in 1993."It happened so fast," Darden said, describing the final play. "The way they were pressuring the ball, it got me out farther than how the play was designed. ... With the time going down, I couldn't find anybody. I just tried to let the shot go up."Niagara coach Joe Mihalich wasn't laying any blame, considering that Darden, his team's leading scorer, had the ball when it mattered."Tremmell's a special guy. I can live with that," he said.The night was additionally emotional for Mihalich, who's 79-year-old mother, Dolores, was in attendance, making the trip from her home in Philadelphia. She was diagnosed with colon cancer last December, news the coach has kept mostly quiet so as not to distract his team."Everybody deals with their own personal setbacks," said Mihalich, noting that only a few of his players knew of the illness. "She's special. It would've been great, but she'll have to come to the NIT tournament now."Niagara's 21 victories are the school's most since going 23-7 in 1992-93, the last time the Purple Eagles earned a postseason berth with an NIT invitation.Niagara, which overcame double-digit deficits in each of its previous two victories, almost made it three comebacks in a row.Down 50-36 with nine minutes left, the Purple Eagles cut Manhattan's lead to 62-61 when freshman Lorenzo Miles hit a 3-pointer with 11.5 seconds remaining.Flores was fouled immediately on the inbounds play. He missed his first free throw long, while his second attempt clanged off the right side of the rim.Jaspers coach Bobby Gonzalez couldn't explain what happened to Flores, who had hit 87.6 percent of his free throws during the season."I was shocked," said Gonzalez, who was prevented from calling a timeout because Niagara got the ball back.Gonzalez credited his defense against a Niagara team that ranked fifth in the nation in averaging 82.5 points a game.Flores passed Keith Bullock (1,992 points) when he hit his first of two free throws 8:27 into the game. He enters the postseason with 2,000 career points.Manhattan took the lead early and never trailed. Flores converted his own miss with an 8-foot jumper to put the Jaspers ahead 7-6 3:40 into the game.