By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
My father had an unusual theory about what used to be called “Little Three Basketball” – games involving Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure.
We moved to Buffalo in 1970, and he soon got the half-joking idea that the only teams those schools ever played were each other.
Back then, the Little Three schools would play each other twice a year – usually on Saturday night. No one was in a league back then, so it was difficult to keep up with the rest of the schedule. But when A played B or C, it was a big story in the Sunday newspaper.
Times have changed, of course. St. Bonaventure moved on to play better competition and is now in the Atlantic 10. But thankfully, Niagara and Canisius are still together, now in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, and still rivals.
There’s something to be said for that. Every high school or college should have a rival of some sort – the type of team that put a smile on past and present students of the school. “Yeah, we had a bad year, but at least we beat Disco Tech.”
I hadn’t seen Niagara and Canisius play each other in quite a while, and my last attempt to go a few weeks ago was snowed out. A few inches of precipitation weren’t going to stop me on Wednesday night.
The women’s game
This was one of those basketball games in which nothing came easily. Every point was a struggle, and no one could get too far ahead. Perhaps that was a result of the matchup. Canisius was 10-17, 8-8 in the MAAC. Niagara was … well, how about that? The Eagles were 10-17, 8-8 in the MAAC.
You’d expect a game like that to go down to the wire and this one did. Niagara was up by a 49-45 count with 1:57 left. Tiana Pugh cut it to a three-point lead with a free throw a few seconds later.
From there, Danielle Sanderlin simply took over. She hit a layup with 1:41 left to make it 49-48, Niagara. Canisius forced a 30-second shot-clock violation, and Sanderlin scored on a drive to the hoop to give the Griffs a 50-49 lead with 50 seconds left. Jai Moore of Niagara answered with 44 seconds left, but Sanderlin sank an eight-footer with 17.3 seconds to go to put Canisius back in front.
What would happen next? Everyone in the building knew the ball was going to Moore, who already had 28 points and is one of the best players in the conference. It did, and as she dribbled on the right side she had about four Canisius defenders in the vicinity. The play fell apart, and the Golden Griffins escaped with the 51-50 win.
There was no time to savor or discuss that fine finish with anyone. Round Two was right around the corner.
The men’s game
Even though the records of the two teams again were similar, this one meant more to Canisius than it did to Niagara because of the MAAC standings.
So the 86-84 loss by the Golden Griffins was painful. Canisius came into the game at 10-6 in the MAAC, in a four-way tie for second place and only a half-game ahead of Iona. When the Golden Griffins dropped an 86-84 decision to Niagara, they fell all the way to fifth place.
Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon was not a happy man after the game.
“We did not have enough energy to start the game,” he said. “For most of the game, we didn’t have enough energy.” And he didn’t know why.
It was a strange game in that the Griffins never could get much of a run going for most of the night. Niagara jumped in front with about nine minutes gone, and slowly but surely expanded the margin. The Eagles led by 43-32 at the half, and it was easy to point at the biggest reason why: three-point shooting. Niagara was 7 for 13 from long distance in the first 20 minutes.
“I think we did a very good job of sticking to the plan,” coach Chris Casey said. “We executed very well offensively.”
The teams traded baskets for most of the second half, as Canisius never could get a run going. In fact, the Griffs finally got it to eight points with 2:52, and still trailed by 82-73 with 2:17 left. But it wasn’t over yet.
“We figured they had a run left in them,” Casey said.
Back-to-back threes by Scott Hitchon and Takal Molson (28 points), and Canisius had run off nine straight points to tie the game. Niagara called timeout with 44 seconds left.
“I feel more confident. My coach and team put their trust in me,” Dominic Robb of the Purple Eagles said. “Marvin (Prochet) said to be, ‘I’m going to throw it to you, so go for it.’”
Robb (20 points) hit a six-footer to give Niagara an 84-82 lead. Then Hitchon was hit with an offensive foul with about nine seconds left, leaving Witherspoon to mournfully say about the call, “I looked at it …” A couple of free throws wrapped up the win for Niagara, and Robb even supplied an exclamation point by blocking a shot in the final seconds – to set the school career record in that category.
“We made one more play than they did,” Casey said.
Two games, two rivalries, two excellent finishes. The snow didn’t bother me much on the way home.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)