By Budd Bailey
Niagara and Canisius both needed a win when they renewed their rivalry on Thursday night at the Gallagher Center. But more importantly, they needed a little normalcy.
The Purple Eagles had played two games since December 21, and the Golden Griffins had played one since December 22. So it was nice for both teams to be playing a game at all, and no doubt it was nice to have the familiar feeling of playing each other. After all, the rivals somehow didn’t have the chance to compete against each other last season, thanks to Covid-19. It was the first time since 1965-66 that Niagara and Canisius hadn’t met on the court.
“Last year was such a messed-up year,” coach Reggie Witherspoon of Canisius said. “I think our last home game was January 2. We played 12 regular season games, and eight of them were on the road. You forget we didn’t play this game (against Niagara) last year, because there were so many changes. There were games that were scheduled to be at home, and the next thing we knew it was on the road. And you’d think the easiest game to reschedule would be one that’s 20 minutes away. But it happens. At least we got one of them this year.”
The teams both gave it a good effort, but may have been a bit rusty in spots. Still, it was the Purple Eagles who came up with more plays down the stretch to take a 68-58 victory before an announced attendance of 1,156.
If the two squads needed any incentive entering the game, they only needed to look at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings. They filled up the bottom of the rankings, as Niagara came in with a 1-3 record while Canisius was 1-2.
The first half couldn’t have been much more even. The game was more or less even for the first seven minutes, which is when everyone on the Niagara roster except Marcus Hammond forgot how to score. He had six points in the next eight minutes, while his teammates had none. Canisius scored five baskets around the rim during that time in pulling out to a 26-19 lead with five minutes left. The supporting case of the Purple Eagles returned to duty for the rest of the half, but a Jacco Fritz lay-up at the buzzer gave the Golden Griffins a 31-29 lead at the half.
The teams traded baskets for the next seven or so minutes, and Canisius still had a 47-44 lead. But Niagara always had seemed like the more dangerous team, and it showed why in the next four minutes. The Purple Eagles ran off 10 straight points to take a 54-47 lead with nine minutes to go. Hammond’s three-pointer to end the run felt like something of a game-changing moment.
“We talked about it during the timeout,” coach Greg Paulus of Niagara said. “We felt if we could get a couple of stops, that we could ship away at it and make a run to take the lead. To our guys’ credit, they did an excellent job of executing and rebounding. That got us a couple of opportunities.”
“We valued each possession, and that’s half the battle,” Jordan Cintron of the Eagles added. “We got on the court and executed our preparation.”
Hammond went back to work a couple of minutes later. He hit a 15-footer and another three to put Niagara ahead, 61-51, with 4:39 left. That total gave the MAAC’s leading scorer a game-high 28 points; he had earned a rest for the final minutes.
“He’s got length, and he was just able to get space and shoot over us,” Canisius guard Ahamadou Fofana said about Hammond. “We’ve got to do a better job covering him – making it tough, make him make tough shots. When a guy like that gets good looks early, he’s going to run with that rhythm and make tough shots down the stretch. And that’s what he did. We have to do better with the scouting – knowing where’s he going to be.”
Cintron added 14 points and 11 rebounds for Niagara. Jordan Henderson had 15 points for Canisius.
Speaking of statistics, one certainly jumped out on the final scoresheet. The Griffs shot 10 percent from three-point range during the game. If only a couple of the misses go in, maybe it’s a different game.
“When you come out shooting 2 for 20 from three, it’s going to be hard to win,” Witherspoon said. “You get 20 threes, and you probably can make two of them with your eyes closed. Might make three of them. If you close your eyes and throw it up, you might bank it in. … We had our eyes open, I think.”
The schedule now turns into an NBA pace for the two squads. Niagara (7-7 overall) plays at Iona – the league’s best team at 4-0 – on Sunday and at Manhattan on Tuesday. At least NYC natives Hammond and Cintron will have the chance to see some friends there.
“I’m excited, honestly,” Hammond said. “I’m ready. We’ve got a couple of days to get ready, but I’m excited.”
Meanwhile, Canisius (5-10, and 0-7 on the road) plays at Manhattan on Sunday and at Saint Peter’s on Tuesday before coming home for two games next weekend. Even with a roster that is getting healthy, managing the schedule will be a challenge for Witherspoon.
“We need to sleep,” he said with a chuckle. “What makes it challenging is that the games we are playing come in a short period of time, and the travel. The travel makes it more challenging than anything. We’ll try to do as little as we can tomorrow.”
But all of that assumes we’re returning to normal in college basketball. If these last 22 months have taught us anything, it’s that “normal” is more than a little elusive.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)