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  • Budd Bailey

Niagara defeats its rival

By Budd Bailey

Niagara and Canisius squared off in men’s basketball for the 192nd time on Tuesday night at the Gallagher Center. And while no one has ever confused this rivalry for the one between North Carolina and Duke, the matchup sometimes carries a little bit of extra juice compared to the rest of the Metro Atlantic schedule for the two schools.

Tuesday was one of those nights.

The 1,295 in attendance saw an excellent, competitive game that went down to the final shot. There were no requests for refunds after a 69-64 victory by the Purple Eagles.

“A heck of a college basketball game, another chapter in an historic rivalry,” Niagara coach Greg Paulus summarized. “We’re really grateful to be part of it and have been part of it for five years. Our group found a way. I’m really proud of the resiliency. … And we couldn’t have done it without the crowd. We felt the energy. We needed the energy.”  

What helped make this an entertaining night of college basketball was that the closeness of the game was on the unexpected side. Niagara has been playing quite well lately, winning four of its last five and essentially giving away the one loss with too short of an attention span at the end of regulation time against Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Canisius had a “help wanted” sign out. The Golden Griffins were down to only seven scholarship players for the game. The Griffins had announced earlier in the week that three players were out for the season. Then TJ Gadsden and TJ Porter sat out Tuesday’s game; they are day-to-day. Starting center Frank Mitchell bounced back from an illness on Monday to play on Tuesday.

“We’ve got to play the guys that are available to play,” coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “We can’t play the ones that aren’t (available).”

With all of that lurking in the background, any predictions for how the game was going to be played soon went into the trash can. It was that sort of night.

After an even first six-plus minutes, Canisius had a nice 10-0 run to take a 19-13 lead. The two teams traded little bursts from there, but the Golden Griffins had the last one – scoring the final eight points of the half to go up 40-26. You can imagine how well that went over with the Purple Eagles.

“I just came in and said they were being more physical,” Paulus said about his halftime speech. “I talked about how if we can get stops, we can get transition segments. And I talked about winning four-minute segments. There was no 14-point play, simply cut it back to 12, then to 10.”

Niagara figured to have a comeback coming, and it didn’t take long to see it in the second half. After giving up a couple of free throws, the Purple Eagles went on a 19-3 scoring spree to tie the game at 45-45. Even better, they provided some spectacularly athletic plays along the way. Most of them came in transition after steals, and all of those dunks had the building making a serious amount of noise.

“There was never anything negative coming out of anyone,” NU center Harlan Obioha said. “There was that next play mentality. That translated to us on the court.”

“What turned the ballgame around was that we turned the ball over,” Witherspoon said. “They got dunks at the other end. That will turn a game around pretty quickly.”

Canisius had every reason to let up at that point. The Griffins were short-handed and appeared to be headed for a sixth loss in seven games. Yet they called on reserves from some source and fought back for the rest of the game. The contest see-sawed for the final minutes, and Canisius moved as close as a point back with 23 seconds left.

“Credit to them,” Paulus said. “We got it to even, and they took a four-point lead. … They played terrific basketball today. … We were fortunate that they missed a couple of shots and we got the rebounds.”

But two foul shots by Niagara’s Luke Bumbalough put the lead back to three, and a three-pointer by Tre Dinkins missed the target with a couple of seconds left to extinguish Canisius’ last hope. A couple of free throws accounted for the final score.

Obioha led the Purple Eagles with 16 points on 8 for 11 shooting, while Ahmad Henderson had 13 and Jaw Obeng-Mensah added 11. For Canisius, Mitchell had the strength to score 16 points and 14 rebounds, while Bryce Okpoh added 13 points.

There were a couple of statistics that jumped out. Niagara had 24 turnovers to Canisius’ 12, but had 16 points on fast breaks to the Griffins’ four. On three-pointers, the Purple Eagles were 4 of 16 – rather dreary but better than the 2-for-15 night by Canisius.

In the bigger picture, this latest win moved Niagara to 12-10, 8-4 in the conference. The Eagles look like a team that could make some noise at conference tournament time. Canisius fell to 8-14, 3-9.  

Both teams don’t have much time to recover from this one. Iona comes to town on Thursday to play at Niagara. Then the Gaels move on to Canisius on Saturday afternoon. The Griffins hope to have a deeper bench for that one.  

“We need to get some rest and get some guys back in uniform – the ones that can,” Witherspoon said.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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