LEWISTON — Make no mistake about it, Canisius was not overlooking this game. There’s no way it was going to look past a game with Niagara and a chance to avenge an earlier-season loss to the Purple Eagles.
The Golden Griffins were very much in the present Friday night, giving their best defensive performance of the season in a 51-36 win over Niagara in front of 372 at the Gallagher Center.
But the most important game of the regular season comes on Sunday when the Griffs (11-17 overall, 8-9 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) play at Siena. Win that game, and they stay out of the dreaded pre-quarterfinal round of the MAAC Tournament. Lose that game, and they’re playing before the conference officially kicks off the tourney with a Thursday afternoon game in Springfield, Mass.
“For the first time in my tenure, this game mattered but it really didn’t matter,” Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. “We need to win on Sunday. So our whole focus going into this game was to have balanced minutes and balanced minutes led to balanced scoring.”
Nine players got double-digit minutes as the Griffs had a constant rotation that resembled hockey line changes at times.
“The balanced minutes helped rest our legs,” said Ashley Wilkes, who had nine points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. “We don’t want to have dead legs against Siena. We didn’t want to overlook this game. We were in the present to beat Niagara but we’re working hard to not play in the play-in game.”
Canisius came into the game with the second-best defense in the MAAC, holding opponents to just 36.5 percent shooting – a program best in the Division I era.
The rotation for fresh legs helped the Griffs play gritty, physical defense, holding Niagara to just 20.4 percent (11 of 54) from the field and just 14.3 percent (2 of 14) from three-point range. That’s the lowest field-goal percentage for a Canisius opponent this season.
Niagara started the game with the hot hand, hitting four of its first seven shots to take an early 9-5 lead.
The Purple Eagles maintained their four-point advantage, going up 13-9 on a pair of free throws from Lauren Gatto. But those were the last points Niagara would score in the half.
Canisius shut down the Purple Eagles, who shot just 1 for 22 over the final 15 minutes of the first half while the Griffs went on an 18-0 run.
After a defensive stop, Kayla Hoohuli hit an NBA-range three-pointer to give the Griffs a 14-13 lead.
The teams traded missed shots before Canisius started scoring in bunches, getting several buckets after executing their halfcourt sets with fluid ball movement. While the Griffs hit from outside, including three-pointers from Hoohuli, Jen Morabito and Jamie Ruttle, they also had a solid presence inside.
Niagara shot just 17.2 percent in the first half (5 of 29).
“In the first half our offense didn’t have the flow we wanted it to have,” said assistant coach Corinne Jones, who took over head coaching duties with Kendra Faustin on leave after giving birth to her second child on Wednesday. “Our defensive effort was great, especially in the second half. It was a grind. Give Canisius credit, they came in and played aggressive and physical, especially with our post players. Sometimes, the shots don’t fall.”
Wilkes and Morabito each scored nine points for the Griffs while Jen Lennox scored eight and Durham seven.
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for Niagara (14-14, 9-8 MAAC), which entered the game tied for fourth place with Rider.
Gatto finished with eight points and nine rebounds for Niagara. Meghan McGuinness scored seven.
Niagara held the edge on the glass, 46-38, including 15 offensive rebounds, but its converted them into only five second-chance points.
Niagara closes out the regular season with a game at Manhattan on Sunday and is likely looking at a No. 5 seed in the MAAC Tournament, which begins March 7.