By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
One of the few constants in college basketball over the years is that it’s nice to have a senior guard around at crunch time of a game.
Exhibit A, at least locally for now, is Malik Johnson.
With Canisius leading St. Bonaventure, 56-54, with less than a minute to play in the KeyBank Center, the Golden Griffins needed someone to take charge of the situation. Johnson was up to that challenge.
With 34 seconds left, he drew an offensive foul on a play involving Bona’s Kyle Lofton. Then Johnson sank four straight free throws to keep the Bonnies out of striking range.
That was the difference as two old rivals got together in downtown Buffalo for the first time in 11 years. Canisius finished with a 61-57 win over St. Bonaventure before 3,831.
“He’s been great for us in building the program,” coach Reggie Witherspoon said about Johnson. “He’s a ‘we’ guy, not a ‘me’ guy. He’ll do anything for the team – whether he scores or doesn’t score. People ask about his increased scoring (15 points for the day Saturday), and I say the thing is that he wants to win. His intense desire is to win. If someone else has to score, he’ll figure out a way to help. That’s what you ultimately want to have.”
This was a valuable win for the Golden Griffins, which leveled its record at 2-2. Canisius had started with losses at Brown and Albany, and needed a last-second shot to capture its home opener against Bucknell earlier this week. To knock off a rival from the relatively powerful Atlantic 10 conference is a nice win for Canisius.
“Obviously this was a hard-fought game,” Witherspoon said. “Both teams played extremely hard. It wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing, but intensity was at a high level.”
“We played hard the whole game,” Johnson said. “There were loose balls out there. We dove on the floor for them. There wasn’t an offensive rebound out there that we didn’t think we could get.”
St. Bonaventure jumped out to an early lead, but Canisius responded quickly to keep the score close for most of the first half. Bona’s last lead came at 27-25 with 3:51 left in the first half, and the Griffins answered with 10 straight points to close out the first half in style.
Canisius got the lead up to 10 a couple of times in the second half, but the Bonnies answered with a small run of their own each time. Bona got the lead down to two with a minute left, and had the ball after Johnson missed a three-pointer. Bona had the ball with the chance to tie or lead, which got everyone’s attention,
“We weren’t going to switch,” Witherspoon said about his defensive strategy for that pivotal moment. “One the last play, we got caught with a silent switch. Two guys went the same way wand we gave up a three. Our communication wasn’t up. So we had to fight through screens, and Malik made it happen.”
Sure enough, there was contact – but you never know what the referee will call on the charge/block plays until he starts talking.
“I read the play and baited him into it,” Johnson said. “We got the call.”
The senior guard had one last closing statement before the game ended. He ate up most of the final few seconds by dribbling the ball around the court with plenty of flair and style.
“Brian Dux (a former Canisius standout who was honored as part of the all-time Canisius team at the half) said he looked like Bob Cousy out there,” Witherspoon said with a smile. “I asked the team if they knew who Cousy was, and two did.”
Cousy’s Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics ended in 1963 – a mere 56 years ago. Players and readers are urged to head to You Tube for a lesson on one of the greatest ballhandlers in the sport’s history – the man they called “Mr. Basketball.”
As for the Bonnies, there’s no time for history. They were hoping better times were coming after last week’s win over the Big Ten’s Rutgers. They had dropped games to Ohio, Vermont and Siena (the latter a member of the Metro Atlantic conference) before the Rutgers win.
“We’ve got freshmen and sometimes they do it and sometimes they don’t,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. “It’s their first year. They have some growing pains. They are going to have ups and downs. Hopefully they are learning. With a young team, you’re going to have games like this.”
One statistic jumped out from the final sheet. In rebounds, Canisius had a massive 40-24 edge, including a 16-8 margin in offensive rebounds.
“Give Canisius credit,” Schmidt said. “Physically, they beat us. They did a good job on the backboards. I thought that was one of their weaknesses going in, but every time we got a stop, they got the ball and a putback.”
Basketball games at the KeyBank Center have been few and far between in recent years. Old-timers – in other words, the ones who remember Cousy – still get nostalgic about the days when St. Bonaventure played home games at Memorial Auditorium.
Even so, this was a nice day of college basketball downtown. The opening game of the double-header was a good one too, as Daemen rallied to beat Wilmington in the final minute. In the nightcap, fans from both schools brought plenty of energy to motivate the teams – shouting at the players and each other from opposite sides of the court.
“I really like playing in the big stadiums,” said Canisius freshman Jacco Fritz, who grew up in the Netherlands. “Back home, I was playing in front of a couple of thousand. It gives the team much more energy. The atmosphere here was great.”
Let’s hope there are more such days down the road.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)