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If Billy Baron is the heart of this Canisius team, Chris Manhertz is its soul. He’s the Griffs’ leading rebounder, their most formidable physical presence. You had to wonder how much they’d miss him Friday night with a chance to complete a rare in-season sweep of Niagara.

Instead of lamenting the injured Manhertz’s absence, the Griffs decided to emulate his tenacity. Down double digits in the second half, Canisius summoned a steely resolve and stormed back to a 71-65 victory that secured its first regular-season sweep of Niagara since 1994-95.

“This one’s for him,” Griffs coach Jim Baron said of Manhertz. “He’s a big part of this program and him being down he said, ‘Coach, you got to try to bring this one home.’ Our guys were really thinking about him and it’s a great team victory.”

“He’s a big part of our team,” Canisius senior Chris Perez said. “This game was for Chris all the way.”

Seniors Billy Baron and Perez were the catalysts as Canisius snapped its first two-game losing streak since mid-November. Baron, the nation’s fifth-leading scorer, struck for 34 points, including six free throws in the final 30 seconds that put the game away. Perez added 17 points and played a major role in holding Antoine Mason, the nation’s leading scorer, to 17 points. Mason went 7 for 23 from the field and attempted just two free throws despite appearing to draw contact on a number of occasions.

“Chris Perez did a fantastic job, especially in the second half, of shutting him down,” Billy Baron said. “He really bulldogged him the whole second half, even the first half, and we just tried to help him out. It seemed like no matter how many guys we threw at him that shot was going up.”

“I told Billy and the guys I was going to need them today to help me out with Mason because he’s such a great scorer,” Perez said. “I think overall it was team defense. They all helped me out.”

Baron iced the game by making two free throws for a four-point advantage with 14.5 seconds left. He added another pair with 4.1 seconds on the clock, atoning for what had been an atypically off night at the line (he missed three of 14).

The victory upped the Griffs to 17-9 overall and 11-4 in the MAC. Niagara slipped to 6-20, 3-12 in suffering its third straight heartbreaking defeat. The Purple Eagles led by 10 with 13 minutes left.

“We needed this coming off of two losses,” Baron said. “Now we just got to capitalize on Sunday” at Siena.

The score was tied at 63 when Niagara turned the ball over on a shot clock violation with 1:16 to play. From there Perez scored on a drive with 55 seconds remaining, putting Canisius ahead to stay.

“The end of the game’s on me,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “I need to do a better job getting us something against that zone.”

Canisius won the first meeting, 87-74, in the Koessler Athletic Center on Jan. 22 but this was the tough one. Niagara had won nine of the last 10 and 18 of the last 23 against the Griffs in the Gallagher Center. Canisius tied the score at 61 as Phil Valenti made one of two free throws with 4:30 remaining. The teams exchanged fruitless possessions before Marcus Ware finally struck, converting the rebound of a Mason miss for a 63-61 Niagara edge with 2:45 on the clock. Perez reinstated the deadlock with 1:55 remaining by draining a pair of free throws.

Niagara grabbed its first double-digit advantage when Mason connected from behind the arc with about 16:30 left but Canisius countered. Perez drove for a basket and Baron struck from long range and the Griffs were back within 44-38.

Again Niagara surged, going up 50-40 on a pretty drive by Mason. Again, Canisius hung tough with a rebound jam by Jordan Heath slimming the difference to 52-45 with 12:04 remaining.

And this time the Griffs kept coming. Baron capped a 9-0 burst with a drive and a trey and Canisius was even at 52, the game’s first tie since 8-8.

Niagara shook off the punch and led, 56-54, entering the final eight minutes, but one had to wonder if the Purple Eagles could hold up unless their second-half shooting percentage improved over 27.3. The pressure was on when a Jordan Heath three gave Canisius its first lead since 4-2 but Marvin Jordan said “touche,” and struck from 23 feet for his first points of the night.

A rough game turned rougher with 10:35 remaining as Niagara’s Rayvon Harris and the Griffs’ Perez got physical in a battle for a loose ball. Perez ended up going hard to the ground and, after a review, it was ruled a jump ball with possession to Canisius. Earlier in the half, Baron and Mason collided, just as they had in the first meeting. This time Baron came out with a banged up knee instead of the forehead cut he suffered in the game at the KAC.

Canisius was in survival mode after front-court starters Jordan Heath and Valenti both picked up two personal fouls before the game was five minutes old. Already without Manhertz (broken nose), the Griffs had to reach deep into their bench and try to hang close. They managed it, too. Although Canisius trailed by nine on three occasions and yielded offensive rebounds in droves, intermission arrived with Niagara leading 37-32.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com