Jim Baron had quite a time getting ready for the big rivalry game against St. Bonaventure. It was tough enough working on his 2-3 zone. He was working on the Canisius student body, too.
“We worked hard all week,” Baron said late Saturday afternoon. “Yesterday, I was in the dining hall, in the library, in subways, at Tim Hortons. You name it. I was giving out free tickets for students to come to the game.”
Baron laughed at the memory. “It’s been a little funny,” he said. He started laughing again. “It was like, ‘There’s a game?’ You know, you’ve got to wake some people up.”
This is Canisius basketball we’re discussing here. The program has been nodding off almost as long as Rip Van Winkle. The Griffs haven’t had a winning record in the MAAC since 1999. They haven’t reached the semifinals of the conference tournament since 2002.
But if Saturday is any indication, an awakening might be at hand. Fans in the Koessler Center had their eyes wide open and their voices rising as the Griffs stunned the Bonnies, 72-69, in the 161st installment of our oldest basketball rivalry.
Come game day, Baron was telling students the game had sold out. Much of that had to do with the raucous St. Bonaventure fans, who occupied about a third of the gym and were louder than the Griff fans at times. No one has to roam the dining halls to recruit Bona fans after last year’s NCAA Tournament run.
Still, it was a more hopeful and passionate Canisius crowd. In the decisive moments, when the Griffs battled back to take a late lead, the place was roaring. I hadn’t heard it that way since the John Beilein era was at its height.
“When I was coaching [St. Bonaventure], we played Beilein’s team and this place was humming,” Baron said. “I think it’s a great place to create a home-court advantage. That’s what we want to keep going, not only these so-called big games with Bonaventure and Buffalo, but throughout the season.”
The Koessler has been a dreary place over the years. The Griffs lost, and they put on a dreadful show to boot. When Baron took over last April, he promised to breathe life into the place.
It won’t be easy at Canisius. It’s a tough sell, as Baron found out during the week. But you could see signs of hope against the Bonnies. He has them playing a more aggressive, fast-paced style. Baron inherited some new talent from Tom Parrotta, but seems to have instilled a newfound belief.
Changing the culture means finishing games, which was a chronic failing over the years. The Griffs had their flashes, but they invariably folded. Against Bona, they did the opposite. They owned the closing minutes, like a true home team.
The Griffs trailed, 64-57, when Chris Johnson nailed a three-pointer for the Bonnies with 7:03 to play. Canisius buckled down defensively and held Bona without another field goal until six seconds remained. The Bonnies, who were shooting 64 percent, missed 10 shots in a row at one point.
Canisius, a guard-oriented squad, made plays in the post when it mattered. Chris Manhertz, a 6-6 forward, tipped in a miss to give the Griffs the lead, 68-67, with 53 seconds left. Jordan Heath, the 6-10 transfer who had struggled early, grabbed some key rebounds and was a force underneath when the Griffs made their defensive stand.
Down by a point, the Bonnies settled for Charlon Kloof’s three-point attempt that clanged off the back rim with 21 seconds left. Baron, despite the objections of his assistant coaches, had switched to a zone, which prevented the Bonnies from attacking the lane.
That’s the sign of a veteran coach who has been there before, who trusts his instincts. Canisius wanted that sort of experience when they hired a 58-year-old head coach, rather than some unproven hotshot assistant. They needed a guy who knew how to rebuild a program, even if it meant showing up in the dining hall with a fistful of tickets.
It’s only two games. It’s also the first time the Griffs have started 2-0 in 12 years. Baron said he wanted to “attack with an approach.” You can see it in little ways – for example, when he had his team running off a made basket and getting a two-shot foul after going straight to the hole.
The Griffs made more free throws than Bona attempted. They forced 19 turnovers. They were the more resilient team.
The crowd loved it.
Beating Bona has mattered for a century. The Griffs have beaten them in some of the worst times. But this one, coming after the school turned to a St. Bonaventure legend to revive the program, had to feel especially sweet.
“It was like lifting a weight off your shoulders,” said Harold Washington, who had 23 points. “That stretch where they had the lead, it was ‘Oh my gosh. You can’t do this at home.’ Once you had it locked up, it’s like, ‘Let’s go, let’s have a good time with this crowd.’”
When the final buzzer sounded, some of the Griffs ran down to the student section to celebrate. Baron climbed into the stands to thank the students.
He didn’t have any tickets in his fist.
He was pumping it.