When Canisius and Niagara first met on the basketball court in 1906, what looked good to the naked eye stood as the final judgment. If an official felt that a final shot came before the buzzer, then it came before the buzzer. Right or wrong, the emotions expressed when the clock struck zero were genuine and concrete.
A lot has changed since Western New York’s most storied rivalry began more than a century ago. First came television. Soon after that we had replay. And then technology would give replays slowed to a snail’s crawl. Game-ending drama became subject to intense technological scrutiny.
You think you won? You think they lost? Hold your hats. Let’s find out what really happened.
Television served as the final arbiter Sunday afternoon in Niagara’s pulsating 66-65 victory over the Griffs before a sellout crowd of 2,196 at the Koessler Athletic Center. Game officials went to the replay to determine if Billy Baron’s 20-foot shot that sent most of the crowd into a frenzy had indeed beaten the buzzer, as originally determined. The answer came when Niagara players, huddled with the officials by the scorer’s table, jumped and pumped their fists and made it known beyond doubt that they were leaving the KAC with their ninth straight conference victory and their 18th win in the last 21 meetings between the schools.
“I saw them going crazy and it was kind of like, I can’t explain the feeling,” Baron said. “It was a high to the ultimate low. When you see them celebrating on your home court it takes everything out of you, just absolutely drains you.”
Disallowing Baron’s running jumper at the end of a full-court dribble meant the role of hero reverted to Niagara’s Marvin Jordan (game- and season-high 23 points). His third three of the game from the left corner and over the outstretched arm of 6-foot-10 Jordan Heath with 2.9 seconds left gave Niagara its only lead inside the final 3ø minutes. It was set up by a drive-and-kick from point guard Juan’ya Green and came after Baron scored on a drive for a 65-63 Canisius lead with 10.8 seconds remaining.
“I just knew to be shot ready the whole time because you never know what could happen that late in the game,” Jordan said. “So I was shot ready and I just trusted him to trust me. And there you have it.”
“I was thinking about going to the hoop and getting a foul first but I slipped when I tried to get to my move and I saw Marvin in the corner and I just passed it to him,” Green said.
Heath leaped toward the corner, contested the shot and nearly got a piece of it.
“I was very close,” Heath said. “When he released the ball I could feel the ball go past my hand. I was real close. It’s tough. I saw it go in and I can’t describe that feeling.”
Canisius (13-8, 6-4) appeared to have matters in hand when it led by 10 early in the second half and by seven with 8:32 remaining. But, with Baron and sharpshooting guard Isaac Sosa (14 points) taking a rest, Niagara made its move. Antoine Mason (14 points) scored a conventional three-point play off an inbounds pass from Green, launching an 11-0 run good for a 55-51 Niagara advantage with 5:52 left. The momentum-changer came after Canisius workhorse Chris Manhertz (17 points, 15 boards) fumbled a rebound over the end line.
The Griffs fought their way back off the ropes and led, 63-59, on a Heath put-back jam with 2:45 remaining. They couldn’t close the door and were left to hope that Baron’s last-instant shot had beaten the buzzer.
“I don’t think it should have come down to that,” Baron said. “I thought we were in control and I think it was kind of us who lost the game more than [they] won the game. I don’t think it should have come down to a last-second shot like that. We need to learn from that and make sure we don’t put ourselves in that situation.”
The long-range jumper propelled Canisius into a 32-25 halftime lead. Canisius went 7 of 20 from behind the arc in the half with Sosa (14 points) nailing three on nine attempts.
There was an exchange of words and some jostling as the teams made their way for the lockers room at the end of a high-octane first half. Nothing serious transpired in what was an extension of earlier confrontations involving Jordan, Heath and Manhertz. Jordan and Manhertz had words after a tie-up under the Canisius basket and Heath got a laugh out of the thought of the 5-11, 180-pound Jordan against the 6-6, 235-pound Manhertz.
Niagara’s offense came out firing but sputtered once its leading scorers, Mason and Green, each picked up his second foul of the first half. Mason’s came with 10:11 left far away from the basket and Green’s with 6:37 remaining when he was playing the bottom of the Niagara zone. The Purple Eagles led, 19-16, after Mason’s infraction but scored just six points the rest of the way.
Instead of sitting both Green and Mason, Niagara coach Joe Mihalich subbed them in situationally, hoping they could generate some offense and remain foul-clean through the next stoppage in play. It had little effect.
“It’s not easy seeing those guys sitting next to me,” Mihalich said. “As much as I like them I don’t want to be sitting next to those guys. So we tried to get them in and out, and you worry about the charges and loose-ball fouls and stuff like that.”
Niagara fought through the challenge and its experience in close games seemed to benefit it down the stretch. This is the fourth time since Jan. 1 the Purple Eagles (13-8, 9-1) have triumphed by five points or fewer.
“A lot of things weren’t going our way,” Jordan said, “so we had to stick together and be tough and make sure we were getting the most out of our possessions and playing good defense.”
It was a different story on the other side.
“Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way and you just run out of time,” Baron said. “And that’s what just happened..”