By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It’s the most wonderful time of the year … unless you are involved in college basketball.
The holiday season has some odd quirks around now that offers some challenges for everyone from the players to the coaches. It’s a time when final examinations bump right into the Christmas season.
“This isn’t the stuff you see on SportsCenter,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said about managing a complicated schedule for his team after watching it beat Holy Cross, 80-72, at the Koessler Center Saturday afternoon.
The Golden Griffins just finished up their final examinations for the semester. That could leave any student rather distracted. Practice time is also reduced because of that.
“There’s a little bit of a challenge because you have final exam week, first of all,” Witherspoon said. “First, they have to be prepared for that. They study for that, and they also have to study to get better as a basketball player. There’s a balance to that. That’s a challenge, especially when preparing for an opponent.”
The tests may be over, but the players immediately had to turn the page to play Holy Cross without the usual practice or preparation time. If that weren’t enough, the Golden Griffins were playing their first home game in the KAC in 28 days, and their last home game of the calendar year.
Canisius also was coming off two straight losses as part of a Florida road trip. With road tests against Buffalo, Siena and Pittsburgh coming up, this was not the time to get tripped up by a Crusaders squad that entered the game with a 1-9 record.
“We looked at it as more of a case that we had some things to look at,” Witherspoon said. “We wanted to get the ball inside. For the most part, we made some improvement with that. I think we’ve got a ways to go. We’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity to show some progress.”
Crusaders prove pesky
Holy Cross has been missing its second-leading scorer, Drew Lowder, in its last few games, so his return on Saturday made the Crusaders a little more dangerous comparatively speaking. Holy Cross is the type of team that gives plenty of effort, and that meant it would take a while for the Griffs to scrape off the rust that accumulated during the break for finals.
“That team as we thought, as we saw on the video, plays extremely hard,” Witherspoon said. “They fight for every loose ball right until the end. They got a lot of offensive rebounds. It wasn’t a surprise. Everything they did what was expected.”
It was a game of runs most of the way. Holy Cross led, 31-23, with 5:39 left in the first half. But Canisius fought back to take a 37-36 edge at the half.
Early in the second half, the Golden Griffins ripped off 10 straight points to take a 51-46 lead. After a Holy Cross basket, Canisius scored the next seven points to go ahead, 58-48. You could sense the game probably was decided at that point, and it was.
The surprise contribution of the day came from Jalanni White. The 6-foot-8 forward came off the bench to score 16 points in 25 minutes. White also added some muscle to the front line that Holy Cross could not match.
“That demonstrates some progress,” Witherspoon said. “We’re trying to get him to be more assertive, more aggressive. We love what he can bring to the table, but he’s got to keep improving. We’ve had some success, and maybe he will say, ‘There’s more I can bring to the table.’ “
Meanwhile, it was a typical game for point guard Malik Johnson: 40 minutes, 20 points, 7 assists, and 7 steals.
“He’s been pretty dependable from the beginning,” Witherspoon said about his standout senior who played in his 108th straight game. “We’re still trying to get in the position where he doesn’t have to play the 40. We’ve got a ways to go on that, but he’s been dependable since we laid eyes on him.”
Hoops become a priority
With finals and this game out of the way, life for the Golden Griffins changes. The rest of the student body goes home for a while to decompress. The basketball team more or less hangs around and focuses more on basketball than ever before – because it can.
“Now they have some excess time,” Witherspoon said. “We have to make sure we use it properly. Not overdo it – we want to give them some rest. There will be days off, but we don’t want to give them too much time off.”
And if you want to hear about the glamorous life of a college basketball player, well, consider that they’ll be home for Christmas … briefly.
“What happens is that they get a day and a half or two days for Christmas,” the veteran coach said. “This stuff is not glamorous. They’ll be back on the 26th. We play on the 23rd.”
Before that, though, comes an opportunity. Canisius plays at the University at Buffalo on Wednesday night. It’s a cross-town rivalry, so many people in Western New York will be keeping an eye on that. And how often does Canisius get a chance to knock off St. Bonaventure and UB in the same season?
“It gets a lot of attention from people who watch,” Witherspoon said about the game. “For us, we’re trying to keep it focused on having another chance to get better. We start in our conference right after that (at Siena on Dec. 23). That’s going to be a quick turnaround for that.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)