By Paul Gotham
BUFFALO, NY — When the dust settled, the Niagara University men’s basketball claimed the 173rd meeting with cross-town rival the Canisius Golden Griffins. A see-saw affair required video review to assure the outcome. The win was the 18th for Niagara in the last 21 meetings with Canisius.
Make no mistake this game was different than the previous 20.
The last time these two long-time rivals met, it was in the virtual play-in game of the Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Seven-seed Niagara took on 10-seed Canisius for the right to play eventual conference champion, Loyola.
The Griffs went all too gently into the night. Less than 24 hours later, the Greyhounds ended the Purple Eagles 2011-12 campaign.
Sunday, the Purple Eagles came in with one of the nation’s longest conference win streaks. Winners of eight straight, NU looked down on the rest of the MAAC.
The Griffs boasted three straight triumphs including a victory at Rider just the second in 17 tries at Lawrenceville. It was the first time since 1999 that both teams had winning records in the MAAC this late in the season.
Sunday’s tilt carried the weight of conference implications.
A resilient Purple Eagles squad erased a 10-point second-half deficit and endured a handful of lead changes for the 66-65 triumph. Juan’ya Green found Marvin Jordan for a game-winning three with four seconds remaining.
Despite hitting just one field goal over a ten-minute span extending from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second, Niagara executed when it mattered most.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of them,” Mihalich said of his team. “It seemed like we were dead and just wouldn’t give in.”
Jordan scored a game-high 23 off the bench.
Niagara’s defense, which was a concern earlier in the season, turned out to be its strength. The Purple Eagles trimmed Golden Griffin leading men, Billy Baron and Isaac Sosa, just enough to make a difference.
The Purple Eagles, with one of the youngest rosters in the country, showed a coming of age. The Griffs, in the nascent stages of the Jim Baron tenure, showed susceptibility.
Using a 1-2-2 half court defense with the top man applying just enough pressure in the back court to cut into the shot clock, the Purple Eagles settled into a match-up zone inside the three-point arc.
Baron and Sosa came into the game averaging a combined 29 points. The Canisius backcourt tandem accounted for 23 on Sunday.
Sosa, averaging more than three threes per game, found little room to work free on the perimeter for open looks behind the arc. Baron, handing out more than five assists per game, discovered clogged passing lanes.
“Different teams play you different ways,” explained Baron. “This team played us a lot of match up. We hadn’t seen a lot of that during the year, so all of a sudden we’re playing against a team that played us man to man on Friday night. Now, we gotta switch gears and go against a match up. Our guys gotta get better at understanding that. But we did have some great looks. We just didn’t put them down.”
Niagara’s bench outscored the Griffs second five, 30-6. With Baron and Sosa on the bench, a 10-point Canisius lead all but evaporated.
“Our bench needs to understand,” Baron noted. “We had a ten point lead and all of sudden it just dropped. We were trying to get rest as they were trying. That’s what they did with Marvin Jordan. He came off the bench, and he gave them some tremendous minutes. That’s what you need as you move forward a bench to really help you become a real good team. The bench had done a good job at Rider. We had a couple of guys really step up and give us some quality minutes.”
“We did some poor things with defending against them,” Baron continued. “We put them on the foul line. We turned the ball over. We fell short with making shots. They made enough. They made the shots that they needed.”
One aspect the Purple Eagles did not have an answer for was the inside play of Chris Manhertz. The 6-6 forward registered a career-high 17 on 7-of-11 shooting from the floor and three-of-four shooting from the free throw line. The Bronx, New York native led all with 15 rebounds including eight offensive boards as the Griffs outscored Niagara in second chance points, 17-14.
“Manhertz is still the toughest kid on the floor,” Mihalich said. “He is just a beast.”
The junior notched his eighth double-digit rebounding performance in 10 MAAC games this season.
“It definitely burst our bubble,” Manhertz said of the last-second loss. “This game was within our control, and we let it slip away from us. We didn’t make timely plays down the stretch defensively and offensively. They made plays, and that’s what it came down to.”
The teams meet again on February 10th at the Taps Gallagher Center. Before then, conference contenders Iona and Loyola come to Buffalo this weekend, four games that could go a long way toward deciding the regular season title.
“This game was all about battling. The toughest team won this game,” Manhertz stated. “They made the right plays down the stretch. This is definitely a game we can learn from, limiting our mistakes. The good thing is we play them again. There’s redemption.”
Billy Baron hit a shot after Jordan’s three. Video replay determined he released the ball after the horn sounded.
Niagara allowed 80 or more points in five of its first six games this season.