By Budd Bailey
There was absolutely no reason to think that Saturday afternoon would turn out to be a memorable day for the Canisius basketball team.
The Golden Griffins had lost three straight games and six of their last seven. They were playing Iona, which had won its last four games and six of its last seven. Canisius was already missing three starters to injury and illness entering the game, and then found out that its best player, Frank Mitchell, was ill and wouldn’t be playing.
That seemed like it was enough to doom the Griffins. Instead, it must have motivated them.
“I told the team before the game, if you can win not only with the numbers of people that we have out – you’re not supposed to win a Division I basketball game with four starters out – this will be a game that you will remember for the rest of your life,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “You’ll be telling your grandkids about this – ‘Nobody gave us a chance … guys played 37 minutes.’ You’re not supposed to have a chance.”
But win it they did. Canisius somehow pulled out a 73-69 victory to improve to 9-14 on the season (4-9 MAAC). It was a good reminder that we watch the games for days like this, hoping that a team with a task that ranges from unlikely to impossible figures out a way to earn a thrilling win.
It was a contest with three distinct portions, and the opening minutes showed that this had a chance to be a good day for Canisius. Tre Dinkins led the way by scoring the Griffins’ first 14 points. Let’s repeat that – the junior guard had 14 straight points for his team, with 12 of them coming on three-pointers. The Griffs had a 14-6 lead with fewer than seven minutes gone.
“I didn’t even realize that he scored the first 14 points,” Witherspoon said. “We were just trying to survive. There’s so much to manage. I realized that the ball was moving, guys were cutting. I thought if we moved the ball early enough, we’d get some shots.”
Help then arrived in the form of guard Siem Uijtendaal, who scored seven points in less than five minutes. That made the score a shocking 23-8, as Canisius’ shooting percentage lingered in the 70-percent range for a while. And just Iona started to find a little rhythm on offense, the Golden Griffins answered with another 10-0 run to put the score at 42-19 two minutes before halftime. It was 42-23, Canisius, after 20 minutes. By the way, the Griffs were 7 of 12 on three-pointers in the first half.
“They called some timeouts, which worked out well for us because we needed the stoppages in play,” Witherspoon said.
But it’s not as if the most fervent Canisius fan could feel comfortable. The team’s starters were racking up some serious minutes on the floor, and reinforcements were not available. What’s more, the Gaels loved the full-court press, and figured to apply the pressure in the second half.
Eventually, Iona started to crawl back into the game, drip by drip. The lead was down to 14 with 14:18 to go, and down to nine with seven minutes left. A couple of minutes later, the Gaels had a 9-0 burst lead to cut the margin to 66-64 with 2:40 left. Finally, Iona moved into a 69-69 tie on a layup by Jean Aranguern with two minutes to go. No one could have excused Canisius for exhaling.
“(The second half was) long because you’re talking to guys and this is what they are giving to you: (panting noise) … OK … OK … (pant) … I got you, Coach,” Witherspoon said.
“I usually play a lot of minutes in the second half, but a lot of guys aren’t used to playing all 20 minutes, so of course there was fatigue,” Uijtendaal said. “They made their run.”
Objects in motion remain in motion at a constant speed, according to basketball expert Isaac Newton. But instead of Iona finishing the comeback, it was Canisius that somehow figured out a way to win. The Griffins made some key defensive stops, and Dinkins and Cam Palesse both hit two free throws to finish the scoring. Somehow, some way, Canisius had won.
“With Frank out, we needed another energy source,” Uijtendaal said. “It had to come from all the players on the floor.”
Four Canisius players had 37 minutes or more of playing time. Uijtendaal finished with 25 points, Dinkins had 21, and Palesse had 10 points and 10 rebounds. Aranguren led Iona with 21 points.
It’s been a tough season on the Main Street campus, as some good play early in the season has been washed away. But at least for one afternoon, the Golden Griffins could take pride in giving everything they had and receiving a reward in the form of a win.