Years from now, long after his playing career ends, Billy Baron is certain to remember his two years in Buffalo. He’ll merely need to look in the mirror to find a remnant from his battles against Niagara, when he and Antoine Mason literally and figuratively butted heads with one another.
Baron sports a scar above his left eye from a game last month in which he and Mason clonked noggins. The Canisius star had blood streaming down his forehead from a gash that required a four-stitch repair. He finished the game wearing a different jersey number but also a smile after the Griffs’ 87-74 victory.
Say what you will about Canisius and Niagara. The glory days for both schools are long gone. Their games no longer carry the same intensity or attract the same crowds they once did, but it’s still a matchup worth watching. If you’ve been paying attention since last season, the two high-scoring stars have made it infinitely more intriguing.
So it was hardly surprising to see Baron and Mason assume their positions after a slow start Friday night in the Gallagher Center.
It was as if Baron felt a need to get his teammates involved before taking over and scoring 34 points. It’s a shame he and Mason couldn’t have cleared the gym and settled the score themselves once and for all.
Baron and Canisius did just enough to pull out a 71-65 victory, but it wasn’t easy. It’s never easy against the Purple Eagles, which explains why Canisius hadn’t swept the season series in two decades before Friday night. Baron made six free throws in the final 29 seconds, stole the ball with less than 10 seconds remaining and put the Purple Eagles away from the line with 4.1 seconds left.
“You talk about the whole buildup,” Baron said. “You try to enjoy these moments. You’re going to look back on them. You only get 80 minutes to play these guys in a year. It goes by quick. It’s great to get this win.”
Mason can hurt teams in many ways, including his own. He’s a terrific slasher with a gift for creating in the lane. He can punish teams when left open on the perimeter, but his shot selection left a lot to be desired Friday. Canisius extended its zone with the idea it could take away both options and test Niagara’s other four.
The nation’s leading scorer had a mediocre game by his standards.
Chris Perez limited him to 17 points after he made 7 of 23 shots. Mason attempted to give Niagara the lead with 38 seconds remaining but took a poor, off-balance shot that barely hit the rim. Baron made two free throws on the ensuing trip for a 67-63 lead.
“We talked about team defense, one guy on the ball and another guy jumping on the ball,” Griffs coach Jim Baron said. “When we went zone, they couldn’t get any rhythm. Perez did a heck of a job. Let’s give credit where it’s due. To be honest, we were attacking him with Perez. He didn’t want to get into a physical match and foul.”
Billy Baron has an innate understanding of when his team needs him offensively, which has become more often than not this season. The Griffs look out of sorts when he’s not directly involved. If only there was a way to have him play the point and shooting guard, which would allow him to pass to himself while running off screens.
The senior had 13 points in the first half. He found his way through the lane, as usual. He made a pair of three-pointers, making the Eagles pay for leaving him alone. One way or another, no matter what happened elsewhere on the court, it was going to come back to Baron or Mason making an impact.
It was a matter of when Friday night.
You could sense a classic battle coming early in the second half when Mason and Baron tumbled after a loose ball and were slow gaining their feet. Mason sent Baron to the line after fouling him on the way to the basket.
Moments later, Mason buried a deep three for his first outside bucket of the game. Baron answered with one of his own.
Baron drove for a layup, Mason slipped inside and spun a shot off the backboard and Baron came back with a three-point play. Baron brought Canisius back from an 11-point deficit when he buried a long three to forge a 52-52 tie with less than 10 minutes remaining. Mason gave Niagara a four-point lead with about six minutes left.
Mason would have scored more if a few calls had gone his way. For him to have only two free-throw attempts is grounds for an investigation. He was hardly alone. The officials seemed intent on letting the two teams play. For a while, it looked like a no-blood, no-foul survival test that belonged on the playground.
Canisius won because it played better defense and made fewer mistakes, but the game wasn’t going to win any beauty pageants with all the missed layups, bad passes and turnovers. For one night, with the two best guards in the Big 4 on the floor, it didn’t matter.
“The atmosphere is fantastic,” Baron said. “It was 95 degrees in that gym. It’s a good old rivalry. Any time you can take down your rival in their gym, it’s great for that program.”
Canisius and Niagara will sort out their differences in the conference tournament next month in Springfield, Mass. Canisius is the better team, but the Griffs need to finish the season the way they started. Jordan Heath will need to assert himself, which has become more obvious while Chris Manhertz is injured.
It depends on how the seedings fall, but let’s hope the two teams meet again in the MAAC Tournament next month. Baron and Mason need one more game against one another, this time on a neutral court. We already know who drew first blood. Here’s hoping they play again to see who draws last.