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When the officials waved off Billy Baron’s last-second basket, wiping away one of the most exhilarating moments in recent Canisius history, I turned to look at the faces in the home crowd in the Koessler Athletic Center.

Many have become familiar over the years, older fans who have suffered with the Griffs for more than a decade. Most of them went to Canisius. Some of them played for the college. In a matter of seconds, every face had gone from joy to stunned disbelief.

The rivalry with Niagara, which goes back more than a century, still matters a great deal to these people. So it hurt to see this Griffs team, one of the best and most entertaining in years, lose a heartbreaker to the Purple Eagles on Sunday, 66-65.

But it surely helped to see a game that dignified our oldest college hoops rivalry, a thriller that featured two clutch shots in the final 11 seconds — and nearly a third when Baron swished his fateful 20-footer a fraction of a second after the buzzer.

It’s games like this that make college basketball so special. Once the disappointment subsides, Griffs fans can take solace in the fact that their team is finally competitive again, and that it should be a team to contend with at the MAAC Tournament in early March.

Of course, they also have to deal with the fact that Niagara, as usual, is a little better. There’s not much to separate the two teams. In this case, the officials determined that the difference was probably in the hundredths of a second.

In the end, Niagara was better and tougher. They hung in after falling behind by 10 points early in the second half, then battled back after falling behind by four points, 63-59, with 2:57 to play.

Niagara made two defensive stops to tie the game, 63-all. Then, after Baron made a runner off the glass with 11 seconds left to put the Griffs up two, Marvin Jordan took a cross-court feed from Juan’ya Green and nailed a three-pointer from in front of the visiting bench to give Niagara the lead.

That set the stage for Baron’s shot that went in an eyelash after the final buzzer. Niagara survived, winning its ninth straight MAAC game to equal its best-ever MAAC start at 9-1.

“They’ve developed a toughness about them,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, “and it’s why we’ve been able to win some games. Their attitude has been terrific. Their toughness has been there, night in and night out.”

Mihalich’s teams are always tough. He has 259 wins in his 15 years on Monteagle Ridge, making him the winningest coach in MAAC history. But this group seems different.

They’re young, with three sophomores and a freshman among the starters. But they enjoy playing defense, which has never been a defining quality of Mihalich’s teams.

The Purple Eagles play a lot of matchup zone these days, which requires intelligence and will. In their nine conference wins, they’ve given up 70 points once. They’re small and quick, as usual, but they cause fits for teams with their relentless half-court “D.”

“We haven’t always had the toughness,” Mihalich said. “I thought it cost us earlier in the season. Now we seem to be getting tougher. Hey look, we’re going to enjoy this, then we have to play Iona and Loyola.”

True, Niagara has a rough week ahead. Iona is a game behind the Eagles and Loyola two back. So the standings could look much different two or three weeks from now. One thing seems fairly certain, though. For the first time in more than a decade, both Niagara and Canisius figure to be factors in the MAAC tourney.

That’s something for Canisius fans to keep in mind. The Griffs haven’t reached the semifinals of the conference tournament the last 10 seasons. They’ve been an annual fixture in the play-in game.

The bar has been raised under Jim Baron. Barring a collapse, the Griffs will finish in the top half of the league and avoid the opening round. There’s a decent chance our two MAAC men’s teams will be among the final four standing in the league tourney in Springfield.

But it’s the Griffs’ misfortune that Niagara is back, too. Two years after losing 23 games, Mihalich has the Eagles in their accustomed place atop the MAAC. For all the talk of the revival at Canisius, the Griffs are still looking up at their biggest rival.

So over the next month, the Griffs need to get tougher. They’re too much of a perimeter team. Chris Manhertz was a force with a career-high 17 points and 15 rebounds.

But Canisius took 31 three-pointers and just eight foul shots. That’s not the sign of a physical squad.

Billy Baron didn’t hide from the tough question, any more than the big shot. The coach’s son agreed that the Griffs will have to be more resilient to make a run in March.

“We feel the opportunity here,” he said. “To do it at this school would be special. Our goal is to win the MAAC. So we need to find different ways to win if we’re not hitting shots.”

Billy Baron believes his team has a real chance. Get hot, and anything can happen. For once, he’s right. Smile, Canisius fans.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com