The Canisius-Niagara rivalry has Western New York’s undivided attention not only because the teams have so much riding on today’s matchup but also the hope of reliving the excitement of the last meeting two weeks ago.
In the span of 11 seconds, Billy Baron broke a tie at 63 with a layup then Marvin Jordan drained a three-pointer before Baron answered with a three-pointer that was waved off because he didn’t get the shot off in time, leaving the Purple Eagles a 66-65 victory.
The rivalry’s encore presentation tips off at 2 this afternoon at the Gallagher Center in Lewiston.
“You can’t get a ticket,” Niagara coach Joe Mihlalich said. “It’s our rivalry game so it has all the makings of everything you dream about.”
The team’s will be hard pressed to top their last matchup.
After Baron scored, Juan’ya Green raced down the right side of the floor searching for a opening, but he slipped slightly as Harold Washington and Isaac Sosa converged for a double team. From the corner of his eye Green saw Jordan, his arms waving as if he was flagging down a cab. As Jordan received the ball, 6-foot-10 Jordan Heath ran at the 5-11 Jordan, who had locked in and fired a split second before Heath arrived.
As Baron raced by Antoine Mason and Devon White near halfcourt Green said to himself, “Please don’t hit a buzzer beater.” But Baron, right in front of his team’s bench, unspooled a running three-pointer that went down. As his teammates hugged him, Baron sensed something was amiss.
“I don’t know if I got it off,” Baron said. “I’ve watched a lot of basketball and I was like, ‘Nah.’ I couldn’t control the guys swarming me but in the back of my mind I was like, ‘Maybe I didn’t get it off.’"
Replay confirmed his fears.
Niagara (14-10, 10-3 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) remains in first place but has dropped its last two games and is now a game ahead of hard-charging Loyola (Md.), which has won its last two.
“We really need a spring back game, and what better game than this one against Canisius on our home floor?" Jordan said.
Meanwhile, the Griffs (15-9, 8-5) are in a three-way tie for third with Rider and Iona and two games out of first. Canisius was looking to gain some ground at Manhattan on Thursday but got thumped, 67-54.
“That just shows you how much this game means,” Baron said. “It’s a must win for both, but we have to rebound from what happened the other day and try and get these guys the second time around.”
The health of key players is a concern for each side. Niagara could be without leading scorer Antoine Mason, who missed the loss at Rider Thursday with an ankle injury. Mason practiced on Saturday but Mihalich said the sophomore looked, “far from 100 percent.” If Mason is out Jordan, who has started 53 games in his three-year career, fills the void.
“He’s our leading scorer, so it’s hard to replace not just the points it’s the presence, it’s a lot of other things, too,” Mihalich said.
Washington, the Griffs’ second-leading scorer, was limited to 23 minutes off the bench in the Manhattan game because of a viral infection. Canisius coach Jim Baron said Washington, who averages 12.7 points, practiced on Friday and Saturday and is feeling better. Senior Alshwan Hymes started against the Jaspers and finished with a game-high 16 points.
“Without Harold, we have a tough time,” Jim Baron said. “We had him coming off the bench because he hadn’t practiced for two days and he was as sick as a dog. ”
Green said the Purple Eagles underestimated Canisius’ talent, especially Baron’s ability to create shots for others, and the inside game of Chris Manhertz, who finished with 17 points and 15 boards.
“We weren’t fully prepared for what they are capable of, they have a lot of talent and we weren’t mentally prepared,” Green said. “Offensively, the kid Billy Baron was making plays for everyone else and Chris Manhertz is strong and gets offensive rebounds.”
The Golden Griffins’ offense is perimeter laden, but Niagara doesn’t have an answer for Manhertz so the Griffs may want to dump the ball inside more. Limiting their turnovers (15 versus Manhattan) would help.
“It would be nice to hit some shots,” Billy Baron said. “Chris was a beast down low and we went to him early and we have to keep going to him. He dominated the game. If we have a nice mixture of inside and out we’ll be fine.”