By Ryan Lazo
LEWISTON, N.Y. — The 174th all-time meeting between Niagara and Canisius seemingly mirrored the 173rd meeting from the opening minutes. Early frustrations for the Purple Eagles soon turned to ferocious right and left hooks to the faces of the Golden Griffins.
And when freshman T.J. Cline nailed a corner 3-pointer to put Niagara up 64-62 with just 3:13 remaining, the 2,400 fans in the Gallagher Center exploded, sensing that once again this young but talented squad would pull it out.
But then Billy Baron took the game over when Canisius needed it most.
The junior not only hit nothing but nylon from beyond the arc, but drove to the hoop like a running back trying to squeeze into the end zone as he scored a game and career-high 33 points in a 77-70 Canisius win.
“When T.J. hit that shot, I thought we were on our way to another unbelievable finish,” Niagara coach Joe Milhalich said. “But they did everything they had to down the stretch — whether is hit a foul shot, force a turnover defend — they did it and we did not.”
Milhalich is right.
Unlike in the previous meeting at the Koessler Athletic Center, Niagara did not make the plays it needed to while Canisius answered every run. The Purple Eagles’ mental toughness pulled them through in the last match-up, but this time it was the Griffins’ experience that led the way.
“They were confident,” Milhalich said. “Canisius is a talented, talented team with all the pieces. Want to talk about experience: Billy went to prep school, to the ACC, the Atlantic 10 and now here.”
While no one made excuses, this Purple Eagles squad sorely missed the presence of Antoine Mason. The 6-foot-3 sophomore, out with an ankle injury, is not only important on offense, but the defensive end as well.
Niagara’s match-up zone does not have the same amount of bite as it does with the length of Mason at the top of the key. And the No. 2 ranked scoring offense is not as potent without the No. 2 leading scorer in the MAAC Conference.
“He’s our leading scorer,” Milhalich said just moments after the question was posed. “He’s physical and tough and when we need a basket, he finds a way to put it into the hole.”
And Mason’s replacement in the lineup, Marvin Jordan, did not make Purple Eagles’ fans forget about the loss of their star guard. While Jordan was the hero in the previous meeting, nailed the 3-point dagger with just seconds left and holding a game-high 23 points, the junior did not crack the score sheet.
Jordan continually found himself open shots, but instead of hearing the swish of nylon, all he heard was the clank of the iron again and again on an 0-for-7 shooting night.
But this loss and their current three-game slide is something the Purple Eagles can learn from.
While they have feasted on MAAC competition for much of the season, this slide is the lesson a young team needs. Nothing will come easy and Niagara is learning this lesson the hard way.
Canisius’ won not because of talent, even though Baron was the standout star of the game, but because of the execution of the fundamentals including rebounding (38 to 34) and controlling the paint (28 to 22).
But even with the Griffins controlling much of the game, Niagara still had their chances and still kept fighting. Facing a daunting 11-point deficit used a 12-2 and 8-0 runs to climb back into the game, showing toughness and resiliency.
“Tough loss for us, but we had opportunities. We had chances,” Milhalich said of his young squad. “We can’t change what happened today. We need to focus on the future.”
And what does that future hold for the first-place Purple Eagles?
Well, the answer to that depends on how focused this young group can be.
Juan’ya Green, the Robin to Mason’s Batman, needed to have a good game in his absence, but his performance lacked the impact it needed. The sophomore did score 21 points and dished out five assists, but he needed 15 shots to reach that mark.
Meanwhile, Devon White scored a season-high 12 points in a game that grew more and more physical as the minutes ticked away. His 6-for-7 effort and seven boards is the type of production Niagara will need as they get into the MAAC Tournament.
“I like to get in there and be physical,” White said after the game. “I like to use my strength to let them know that I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”
And this Niagara squad is not going away. They are far too talented to not right the ship before the season ends.
“Name a team in the league who wouldn’t trade places with us right now,” Milhalich said. “Even with the three losses in a row, we’re in first place.”
First place with just four games remaining.
If Niagara remains focused, their talent will take over once again, much like it did during their 10-game win streak through MAAC opponents.
The good news for Niagara?
It will only take a seven-game streak to be MAAC Champions.
Ryan Lazo can be reached on Twitter @RMLazo13.