Jim Baron stood on the sideline, imploring the Golden Griffins’ fans in attendance to make some noise.
“Western New York basketball, this has got be spirited,” the Canisius coach said.
It certainly was Saturday night, as the Griffs came away with a 77-74, Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference victory over Iona before 1,852 fans at the Koessler Athletic Center.
“Finally we got the crowd into it. It took us a while,” Baron said. “These kids are playing their hearts out. And they’re really stepping up and playing against some really good teams and coming out on top. That’s why I’m trying to get the crowd up and be the sixth man.”
There was plenty to cheer for down the stretch against the Gaels.
A game between two of the top three scoring teams in the MAAC delivered on its promise of offensive fireworks, but it was a pair of defensive stops that earned the Griffs the win. Nursing a one-possession lead on two occasions with less than 30 seconds to play, the Griffs clamped down their man-to-man defense to force stops.
Billy Baron scored a game-high 23 points for Canisius, the last three from the free-throw line. He was fouled on a three-point attempt — from about 32 feet away — with 57.6 seconds left.
Billy Baron said he was confident in the shot because the defender, Lamont “MoMo” Jones, was caught with his hands down.
“MoMo kind of had his hands on his legs, kind of tired, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m just gonna let this one go.’ Thankfully, he bailed me out,” Billy Baron said. “I thought it was going to go in. ... I was very confident stepping into that shot.”
Iona coach Tim Cluess had a different view of the play.
“Billy kicks his legs out. So when he kicks his legs forward, it’s actually an offensive foul, and that was the only contact that was made,” Cluess said. “But credit to him, they got the call and he made all three foul shots, which were huge for them.”
So was Baron’s defensive pressure on Iona’s ensuing possession. The Canisius junior harassed Jones, who came into the game as the NCAA’s fourth-leading scorer, into a traveling violation with 35.1 seconds left.
Canisius’ Jordan Heath split a pair of free throws to put the Griffs up, 76-74, Iona called timeout with 17.2 seconds left.
Junior guard DaShawn Gomez then attempted to drive on Canisius’ Chris Manhertz. The Griffs’ forward forced Gomez him to dribble the ball off his leg and out of bounds. Canisius took over with 2.6 seconds left, and Isaac Sosa hit 1-of-2 from the free-throw line.
“Coach stressed to us the timeout prior to that play just to keep our man in front. Thankfully I contained him and he knocked it off his leg,” Manhertz said.
“That’s how we’re going to win the MAAC Championship, that’s how we’re going to get to the tournament, making stops like that,” Billy Baron said. “Good teams win close games, so we’ve got to keep playing team defense, that’s what’s most important.”
In avenging an earlier loss to Iona (14-9 overall), the Griffs held the Gaels to 23 fewer points. Iona, which came into the game averaging a MAAC-best 82.2 points per game, shot just 24 percent (7 of 29) from three-point range. Iona guard Sean Armand, who torched Canisius for 32 points in the teams’ first game, was held to just nine thanks to harassing defense by the Griffs’ Harold Washington.
Canisius went 14 of 30 from beyond the arc, helping make up for the massive deficit they had in points in the paint (30-10). Canisius (15-8 overall), joined Iona and Loyola (Md.) in a three-way tie in the MAAC standings at 8-4, two games behind Niagara.
The Griffs next travel to Manhattan on Thursday.
For more on this game, go to the Campus Watch blog at buffalonews.com.