By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
If we’ve learned anything about the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference this men’s basketball season, it’s that it has been kind of a mess.
For instant, the last time Siena was in town, it lost to Niagara and Canisius – and then went on a 12-1 rampage through the league to win the regular season title. Everyone but Marist in the MAAC finished with double digit wins, and just about everyone was a good home team but had a so-so or worse road ledger.
It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the standings got a little messier on Friday night. Canisius and Niagara renewed their rivalry at the Koessler Athletic Center, and it was the Golden Griffins that came up with a 67-63 win before 1,805.
Therefore, Canisius finished the season with two straight wins to improve to 12-19, 7-13 MAAC, while Niagara dropped two in a row to finish at 11-20, 9-11 MAAC.
No basket trading
It would be easy to sum this one up as a game of runs. Each side went on spurts during the course of the contest, and eventually they more or less evened out to produce a close contest.
For example, Niagara looked to be the better team during most of the first half. The Eagles had a nice 9-2 run in the middle of the opening 20 minutes to go ahead by 21-10. Canisius responded with a 12-0 spurt to take its first lead, but Niagara was up 29-24 with a less than a minute to go.
Then came a momentum-changing series of plays. The Purple Eagles hoped to get two possessions to the Griffins’ one down the stretch. Instead, two turnovers led to four quick points by Canisius. It was only a 29-28 halftime lead for Niagara.
“In any game, the end of the first half is always crucial, especially in a rivalry game,” Malik Johnson of the Golden Griffins said. “We wanted to stay focused.”
Justin Roberts opened the second half with a three-pointer for Niagara, but the Eagles didn’t score again for another four-plus minutes. Canisius, meanwhile, picked up 11 straight points that was part of a 16-2 run. That gave the Griffins a 44-34 lead with 14 minutes to go almost before anyone realized it. Jordan Henderson had eight of his 10 points on the night in that burst.
“Canisius did a really good job of ending the first half, and then got off to a great start in the second half,” Niagara coach Greg Paulus said. “Canisius deserves a lot of credit.”
The game looked over when Canisius took a 61-46 lead with 3:18 to go. But nothing has come too easily for the Golden Griffins this season. Niagara hit three straight three pointers and added a James Towns lay-up (18 points to lead all scorers), and suddenly it was a five-point game with less than 70 seconds left. There were a few anxious moments the rest of the way, but Johnson hit a mid-range jumper with 39 seconds left that essentially wrapped up the game.
It was a nice way for the senior to finish his career. After all, it was Senior Night.
“It was kind of weird, because it felt like a regular game,” Johnson said. “I had about 20 family members come up from Richmond, and I got to walk on the court with them. But it still felt like a regular game.”
Milestones for Johnson
Johnson had 14 points and five assists, with the latter total making him the fifth Canisius player to finish with 180 assists in a season. He also had two steals to reach 200 for his career – only two other Golden Griffins have done that. Majesty Johnson came off the bench to lead Canisius with 18 points. The Golden Griffins finished with a 15-3 edge in offensive rebounds, which was a huge part of the win.
The game featured a rather unusual postscript. The teams did not shake hands at the end of the game; you may have guessed that fears about the Coronavirus were responsible.
“I didn’t know about it (at the time),” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “What I’m hearing now, it’s a league order. This thing is so new. A former player of ours is in Italy, and he says they’re not even allowing people to come to the games. We’ll see what goes on, going forward.”
Eventually, we figured out who would be playing where in the MAAC Championships in Atlantic City next week. Canisius, which had wrapped up the No. 10 seed before the game, will draw Iona, in the Atlantic City event. The Griffins literally have led the nation with conference losses of five points or fewer (eight). Maybe the win over Niagara will give Canisius a little confidence once tournament play begins.
“We’ll be working on what we’ve been working on,” Witherspoon said.
Meanwhile, Niagara finished with the No. 6 seed, having missed a chance to miss the opening round of the competition. The Purple Eagles will play No. 11 Marist on Tuesday.
“Playing all these teams twice, I think there’s a familiarity with them,” Paulus said. “We just played Marist a couple of weeks ago. So it will be some quick preparation for Tuesday. I don’t think it changes how we prepared or what we do.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)