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  • Budd Bailey

Niagara rallies to defeat Canisius

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

By Budd Bailey

It’s a familiar basketball story. The pesky road underdog goes into the home team’s building and plays up to their level. In fact, it is even leading fairly late into the second half.

Then, the shots stop falling, the defense makes a couple of errors, and the game flips.

That was the story for Canisius on Friday night. The Golden Griffins put up a spirited fight for 34 minutes against their old rival Niagara. Then the offense went as cold as the weather outside, and the Purple Eagles took a well-earned 76-73 win before more than 1,500 in the Gallagher Center.

For a while there, it looked as if Canisius was set to pull a surprise. The Griffins had gone from a 52-52 tie with 12:52 left to play to a 66-60 lead with 6:31 left. They hit four three-pointers in that span.

But Niagara still had a run left. Aaron Gray hit a three-pointer, Noah Thomasson sunk a 7-footer, Gray jammed one home, Sam Iorio hit two free throws, and Thomasson scored on another three-pointer. That added up to a 12-0 run, and Canisius only had 59 seconds to compensate – and couldn’t do it.

“Playing defense – that was the whole emphasis of the game,” Gray said. “Trying to get those stops.”

“We had some good looks; they didn’t go down,” Griffins coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “We had some free throws, missed them. We didn’t knock them down.”

You’d expect your leading scorers to come through in that situation, and Niagara’s did so. Gray finished with 27 points, a little short of his career high of 30 set last month but still plenty good. Thomasson had 23 points. The pair had all but two of the Purple Eagles’ baskets in the final 15 minutes; Harlan Obioha came off the bench to get a couple of hoops in a row in the middle of the second half.

“The effort was really outstanding,” coach Greg Paulus said about his Niagara team. “They missed a couple of shots that they had made earlier. They have some terrific players. But we took care of the basketball and trusted each other. We made some good plays there. At the end both teams we were tired, but we fought through it and made them miss one extra time.”

“I don’t think it’s what Niagara did. It’s what we did,” Jordan Henderson of Canisius said. “Some good ones didn’t fall. We got some looks. We’ve had a lot of games like that. We play hard for 30 minutes, and we just don’t close out. We have to lock in at the end of the game and really be focused – not make simple mistakes. They add up.”

It was the third straight win for Niagara (12-9, 7-5 MAAC), which is part of a familiar pattern for the team this year. The Purple Eagles have been quite streaky this season. Before this winning streak, they had lost four straight games. That wiped out the good feelings that came from the preceding four-game winning streak that started in late December.

That might be due to the way the schedule falls, or luck … or even playing several close games in a short period of time with the appropriate gain and loss in confidence at a given moment.

“There have been a lot of one-possession games,” Paulus said. “It was that way in the non-conference, at least a couple of them, and in the conference it seems like every games comes down to the last minute. Even the games where we played 5-1, it was still one-possession games. But for us, no matter what happens, the process doesn’t change. Whether we come out on top or fall short, we have to learn. We can be a little bit better. We still have a ways to go, but we’re learning.”

A win on the road would have been appreciated by Canisius (5-19, 3-9). The Golden Griffins earned a shocking win over conference leader Siena on January 15. But since then, the team has dropped four in a row, all by single digits.

“It was a hard-fought game; we came up short in the end,” Witherspoon said.

Four players were in double figures for Canisius, as Jordan Henderson had 15 and Siem Uijtendaal added 14 – including his first two-point basket of the season (all of his other points this year had been on three-pointers.

The Canisius-Niagara rivalry isn’t what it used to be, naturally. Times have changed since their meetings in Memorial Auditorium were the highlights of the winter in Buffalo. Even so, the building had some energy on Friday night, and it wasn’t simply a case of the fans trying to keep warm. Tradition still carries some weight, as the teams played for either than 190th or 192nd time in history – depending on which school’s stats are doing the counting. (They are hoping to settle that argument once and for all in the summer.)

“This is a unique and special rivalry, and I’m grateful to be a part of it,” Paulus said. “This has been going on since 1904. I was part of the Duke-North Carolina (rivalry) – we play (Saturday) … at 6:30 – and being part of that, that rivalry started in 1920. For the coaches, we have a great deal of respect for it. We’re honored to be part of it.”

After the game, both teams hurried home to get a little sleep. They’d be seeing a lot of the Thruway in the near future, as Canisius heads to Marist in the Hudson Valley for a Sunday game, and Niagara plays at Siena outside of Albany at the same time.

(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)

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