Once the ever-narrowing lead had been protected, once the victory was in the books, who could help but think how appropriate it was that Canisius coach Jim Baron recorded career win No. 400 by losing a few more hairs in the process?
To win 400 games coaching mid-major programs – and first by resurrecting downtrodden mid-major programs – is quite a noteworthy feat. It doesn’t come easy, which is why the Griffs’ 64-60 victory over Manhattan on Thursday night before 1,370 at the Koessler Center built symbolism into the milestone.
Canisius held the Jaspers without a field goal for more than 11 minutes in one stretch, more than 6 minutes in another, led by 13 with just under four minutes remaining and still had to hold on for dear life. Imagine living that kind of life over 26 years in the profession.
It took Canisius longer than expected to bring its new leader to the next victory plateau in his coaching career – in large part because an 8-2 start to the season elevated expectations. The Griffs entered having lost four of five and the residual effects of a lead blown Friday at Siena were evident as Manhattan twice rallied within two inside the final minute. Pairs of free throws cashed by Chris Manhertz and Isaac Sosa (season-high 25 points) turned the Jaspers away and granted Baron the moment that had seemed on interminable hold.
He arrived at the postgame news conference with son Billy (10 points) at his side and, unlike many coaches, was forthright in identifying the milestone as a source of pride and accomplishment.
“It’s unbelievable,” Baron said. “It’s unbelievable taking over programs that really have been so down, every one of them, and to be able to win this many games. And a lot of them are tough wins. We don’t have some of the creativity other programs may have, and usually when you’re taking over programs everybody wants to play you, because you’ve been a mat.
“But you know what’s even more important to me, to have my sons with me, Billy and Jimmy, to have graduated so many student-athletes, almost 100 percent. That to me is almost as important as the victories on the court because I know they have a chance in life to make it by having that degree.”
A player at St. Bonaventure, Baron’s journeys in coaching took him to St. Francis, Bona and Rhode Island before he was fired for the first time and found his way back to Western New York — after all this time — with something to prove.
“I can’t do it without my players, my staff, my family,” Baron said. “I just got a text from my son [Jimmy] over in Russia, congratulating me. What time is it there? Five o’clock in the morning. That’s real special.”
“Four hundred is a lot of wins, it really is,” Billy said. “To do it at St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, Canisius is exceptional. ... That’s a lot of wins at this level, for sure.”
The Griffs (11-7, 4-3) were like a broken thermostat this night, running hot and cold. They trailed 21-11 before establishing an inside game through Jordan Heath (nine points), Manhertz (five) and Freddy Asprilla (two) that finally opened some room on the perimeter against an overplaying Manhattan defense. They ended the first half with a 10-0 run good for a 28-25 halftime lead, and extended the rampage by scoring the first eight points of the second half. Sosa caught fire from the perimeter (five treys), Harold Washington (12 points) found room off the dribble and it was looking like the Griffs had this one put away.
“They played some junk defense, really I don’t know what they were in,” Billy said. “Very fortunate for Freddy, for Chris, Jordan, for them to make plays.”
Manhattan (5-12, 3-4) wouldn’t fold and made the Griffs sweat to the finish.
“After that road trip we just came off of, I can’t explain the state we were in, not desperation but we were all like, we need this win,” Washington said. “We weren’t saying it or vocalizing it, but you could feel it. You could see it on guys’ faces.”
“We came out today with a sense of urgency,” Sosa said. “We had to stop the bleeding a little bit.”