There remains a proceed-with-caution approach in regards to optimism over Canisius College basketball, yet even the most cynical Golden Griffins observer had to enjoy Saturday’s triumph over rival St. Bonaventure.
And there was plenty to celebrate after the 72-69 win at the Koessler Center, which has Canisius at 2-0 for the first time since Harold Washington – and the majority of his teammates – were still in grammar school.
For Washington, who swooped and sallied his way to a game-high 23 points, it seemed like he waited a lifetime to earn another crack against the Griffs’ Big 4 rivals, who pounded Canisius last December in the Reilly Center, 81-62.
“From last year, the difference was we found a way to get over that hump,” said Washington, who led Canisius to its first 2-0 start since the 2000-01 season. “We learned how to work together through that adversity and find a way to win it.”
The adversity came when the Bonnies (2-1) geared their defense to silence Billy Baron. St. Bonaventure’s Charlon Kloof, the team’s best on-ball defender, pressed Baron full court while forcing the Canisius point guard into five turnovers and 2-of-7 shooting. When the Golden Griffins can’t execute Billy Ball, it leaves the team rattled. At least that’s the perception.
But after the Bonnies took a 64-57 lead, Washington went to work, scoring 10 points in the final 6:39. You also have to account for Isaac Sosa, the sweet shooting transfer from Central Florida, who connected on 4 of 8 from the floor and finished with 14 points. You have to account for Chris Manhertz, who scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting, and whose tap-in with 53.2 seconds left gave Canisius the lead for good.
Twenty-five losses is so passe. Could be time to clear the way for a new trend at Canisius.
“The transformation is kind of visual and I’m sure all of you can see it,” Washington said. “Last year it was a lot tougher for us. We were in the game the entire game even when they were making shots and they were making long runs we still found a way to sustain some life in this game.”
Meanwhile, St. Bonaventure is still mixing and matching and Saturday revealed evidence of the need of a go-to scorer when the stakes are higher in the final minutes. For four years, that option was Andrew Nicholson, which is why the Orlando Magic picked him in the first round of last June’s NBA Draft.
It could be Chris Johnson, who poured in 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 3 of 3 from long range. It could be Demitrius Conger, who along with Eric Mosley scored 14 points on a cold-shooting outing (3 of 11). Maybe it’s Matthew Wright, who hit 6 of 10 and who took the final shot in regulation that could have sent the game into overtime. Yes, St. Bonaventure has options and each player knows how to win.
“We’re still early in the season and we’re looking at everything,” St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said. “How to play at the end of the game? Who to play at the beginning of the game? Rotations. Every team goes through that and that’s what we’re going through. Who do you want to go to? Who’s going to be successful at the end of games? That’s the evolution of a team as you go through the season.”
The process was shaky in the last seven minutes when the Bonnies were 1 for 12. Looking back, Schmidt wished the team attacked the basket more and got to the foul line where it was 8 for 10. Canisius finished 18 of 21 from the line.
But the Bonnies were more concerned with how easily Washington scored.
“We had some failed assignments toward the end,” Wright said. “We’ll look at the film and make the proper adjustments.”
Canisius made one major adjustment defensively that played a pivotal role in the game. The Golden Griffins shifted to a zone defense – much to the displeasure of Jim Baron’s assistant coaches – which forced Kloof into a rushed three-point attempt with 21 seconds left. Kloof’s miss bounced out of bounds with Canisius leading, 68-67.
“My assistants thought I was out of my mind,’’ said Jim Baron, the St. Bonaventure graduate and former head coach. “Sometimes, as you coach, you have some instincts and I said, ‘I’ll take the hit.’ ”
Sosa then made two free throws with 16.8 seconds left before Johnson followed up a missed Conger three-pointer. Conger immediately fouled Washington, who canned two more free throws.
One more shot still for St. Bonaventure. Wright’s look was clean from the left wing and appeared true as it left his hand, but the shot glanced off the rim.
“We played to win,” Baron said. “We played to win and not to lose. I think that’s a big part of our approach and that’s why we’re aggressive with coming back.”