By Ryan Lazo
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Niagara Purple Eagles took punches to the gut, chest, waist and everywhere in between, but the young squad answered Canisius’ every move in a game that turned into an instant classic at the Koessler Athletic Center.
A sold-out crowd of 2,196 fans witnessed a Canisius team that could not finish off Niagara when they were on the ropes and instead saw the Purple Eagles grow up before their eyes.
Trailing by two with just 11 seconds remaining after a Billy Baron lay-up, Niagara quickly stormed up the court. Juan’ya Green surveyed the scene like a silent assassin and instinctively started to drive to the hoop.
The Griffs’ defense collapsed on Green and the sophomore guard did not force a bad shot, but instead found a wide-open Marvin Jordan for the game-winning 3-pointer in a 66-65 victory, the 18th in the last 21 meetings against Canisius for Niagara.
“I don’t know if I’ve been prouder of my team,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “It seemed like we were dead and we just wouldn’t give in.”
But it seemed the perseverance Niagara (13-8, 9-1) showed would be for nothing after Baron dribbled feverishly up the court and made a miracle 3-pointer, seemingly clinching a win for Canisius. However, after review, Baron held on to the ball just a fraction too late and that was the difference.
The Purple Eagles survived the 12-round fight, making a statement that even though they are the 40th youngest team in Division I, they have a tenacity that belies their age.
Canisius (13-8, 6-4), one of the more senior laden squads in the country, had been rolling on a three-game winning streak and quickly took control of the contest in the opening minutes.
The Griffs’ defense knew Niagara is a penetrating type of team and instead forced them into contested shots around the perimeter. The strategy paid dividends as Canisius did not allow Niagara to score one point in a 6:38 span of the first half as they took a 32-25 lead into the locker room.
But these Purple Eagles learned a lot during their eight-game MAAC winning streak. They knew the adjustments that needed to be made and they turned it around in the second half.
And it all started on the defensive end where Niagara forced Canisius into 12 turnovers, seven of those in the second half.
“They made some shots and we turned the ball over at some crucial times,” Canisius coach Jim Baron said. “They stepped up and we fell short.”
Baron is right.
The Griffs did turn the ball over in crucial moments, but that had more to do with the desire of Niagara more so than his own team.
With Canisius leading by seven, 51-44, Antoine Mason missed two consecutive free throws only to get an offensive rebound, score and draw a foul to complete a conventional 3-point play. But then Jordan sparked Niagara even further with a steal off an inbounds, making a layup to pull them within a basket.
Mihalich then called out his defensive call — a 1-2-2 half court press — and Canisius promptly fell into a trap and turned the ball over again, allowing Jordan to tie the game up.
“Sometimes it’s just, readiness,” Baron explained. “Just being a little bit more ready.”
No one was more ready for this game than Niagara, who despite having one of the longest winning streaks in the country and a first-place standing in the MAAC, still were in the shadow of Canisius.
While Green and Mason represent one of the best backcourt duos in the MAAC, ranking in the top 10 in three different categories, on this night they received some unexpected help.
Jordan, the hero of the game with his dagger 3-point shot, played 34 minutes in the game — eight minutes more than his average — and led the team with 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting.
While Jordan hit the game-winner, the plan with the game on the line was to have the ball in Green’s hands and let him get to work.
“If Juan’ya has the ball, you really feel like good things are going to happen,” Mihalich said. “Because he might be throwing it Mason, Tanksley or Jordan.”
And when Green drew in the defense and threaded a bullet pass to Jordan, he did not hesitate on firing away even as he was just 2-for-11 from 3-point range on the game.
“I feel like every shot I take looks good,” Jordan said smiling.
And that tells you everything you need to know about this Niagara squad. They have no fear. They just continue to impose their will on opponents until they get the victory.
And with a player like Green who can fill up the stat sheet with nine points, eight assists, five steals and five rebounds teaming up with a scorer like Mason — this team is dangerous.
“They’ve developed a toughness about them,” Mihalich said of his team. “It’s why we are winning some games.”
Not giving up and believing in each other has brought this Niagara team to the top of the MAAC and with the toughness they showed against Canisius, it looks like they will be staying there for the near future.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13