LEWISTON – On Saturday afternoon, Jim Baron the father and coach got together with Billy Baron the player and son to see what could be done to recapture their team’s slipping momentum. Start being more aggressive, the coach told the player. Press the issue. And in looking at past game tapes, they identified ways it could be done.
Billy the Kid took it all to heart. Not only was his father on his case, so was his older brother, Jim Jr., through critiques offered all the way from the pro leagues of Russia. Enough already. Billy got the message.
Baron shooting 22 times probably won’t serve Canisius well on a daily basis. But on Sunday afternoon it was the antidote to more than a decade’s worth of futility at the Taps Gallagher Center. Those 22 shots led to a career-high 33 points and a 77-70 victory over Niagara, the Griffs’ first on Monteagle Ridge since Nov. 30, 2002.
“Baron wasn’t going to let his team lose today,” said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. “He was terrific.”
Canisius (16-9, 9-5 MAAC) has moved within a game of the Purple Eagles (14-11, 10-4) with four games remaining in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season. Whether the Griffs can sustain the surge that comes with winning six of eight could depend on the state of Baron’s left ankle, twisted on a three-point make with 3:23 remaining. He sat a short spell then returned, but arrived at the postgame news conference with it heavily taped.
He said he’ll ice it up and hope to be ready for Loyola (Md.) on Thursday. It’s no sure thing. Niagara guard Antoine Mason, the MAAC’s second-leading scorer, vowed he’d be OK after spraining an ankle against Loyola eight days ago but hasn’t played since. Doubtless his absence played to Canisius’s benefit as the Griffs avenged a 66-65 loss to Niagara on Jan. 27.
Remember that game? Baron erupted with jubilation when his buzzer shot swished for an apparent Canisius victory, only to have it ultimately overturned by replay. This time around he left nothing to chance. His driving layup – bad ankle and all – pulled the Griffs into the lead for good with 2:14 remaining. He went 4 for 4 from the foul line after that, repeatedly punishing the Purple Eagles for putting an 80 percent shooter on the stripe.
“Seeing him go to the ground like that and get back up and not quit on us, it just gives us fuel,” Griffs center Jordan Heath said. “We play off that and it’s huge for us.”
“He had a great game,” said Harold Washington, who finished with 18 points. “Big shots. He was leading the team, we followed. We need that from him at times.”
Washington and Heath had their major moments as well. Washington hit a three in transition to put the Griffs up four with 5:25 remaining and sank two free throws to tie it at 59 with 4:05 to go. Heath provided the basket that basically broke the Purple Eagles, a rebound jam following up a Washington miss created by a Josiah Heath steal. That made it 68-64 just 52 seconds from the end.
“Harold was hitting some big shots, Jordan with that put-back dunk, that’s stuff we need to get that win,” Billy Baron said. “Those guys stepped up along with me and we were able to come out on top.”
Niagara trailed by as many as 16 before staging a typical torrid Taps rally. A Juan’ya Green (21 points) free throw inched the Purple Eagles ahead, 53-52, with 5:58 left – their first advantage since the game’s opening minute. And the tide appeared to swing decidedly in Niagara’s favor when, with 3:10 remaining, T.J. Cline nailed a three good for a 64-62 lead.
“When T.J. Cline hit that shot I thought we were getting ready to have another unbelievable finish but they did everything they had to down the stretch, whether it was make a foul shot, make a shot, force a turnover, defend,” Mihalich said. “Whatever they had to do in the last few minutes they did.”
Outside of its tight nature down the stretch, the game bore little resemblance to the first encounter. Canisius forward Chris Manhertz went for 17 points and 15 boards in the first meeting, but had just four and seven this time around. Griffs guard Isaac Sosa went from 14 in Game One to just seven in the rematch. But the biggest fluctuation of all involved Niagara guard Marvin Jordan. The hero with 23 points off the bench and the winning three in the first meeting, Jordan started for Mason and was held scoreless. He was 0 from 7 from the field, six of those shots from behind the arc.
“We didn’t want to let him go off, especially if Mason wasn’t playing,” Billy Baron said. “We knew that they were going to lean on him a lot more. We tried to limit his shots … and have him shoot tough shots.”
That’s something Niagara couldn’t manage when it came to Baron.
“Billy, what can you say,” Jim Baron said. “Him and I, we sat down yesterday and watched film and I told him he’s just got to be a lot more aggressive. He did it. He took it off the dribble, made plays. … He rebounded, made his free throws and played very good defense as well.”