SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The three-point field goal has long been one of college basketball’s more electric offensive options. It can pave the way to a fast start. It’s the best friend of the team combating a sizable deficit. But rarely can it be relied upon from tipoff to final buzzer.
Canisius arrived at the same conclusion after a seesaw first half against Siena in Saturday afternoon’s MAAC quarterfinals. For 20 minutes the Griffs made their living from behind the arc. Life was good. Life was easy. Yet they knew that to stay the course would invite disaster. The percentages were going to catch up with them at the most inopportune time.
“In the locker room I told the guys ‘We got to step up,’ ” senior guard Chris Perez said. “I told the guys, ‘This is my senior year, they better not mess it up for me. I didn’t come all the way to Buffalo to lose. I’m from Florida. We got beautiful weather down there.’ ”
Canisius (21-11) owes Saturday’s 71-65 quarterfinal victory over Siena and a semifinal date with Iona to its ability to identify and its willingness to adjust. The Griffs pounded the ball inside relentlessly right from the start of the second half and within three minutes produced three two-point field goals, matching their entire first half total. The offensive board became their domain and the source of 16 second-chance points. The Griffs won the second-half rebounding 18-12, with 11 of those coming at the scoring end. Senior forward Chris Manhertz tormented the Saints with a game-high 11 rebounds, five of them offensive.
“I know we had ups and downs with it the whole season but it probably sets in that it’s either you win or you go home,” Manhertz said.
MAAC Player of the Year Billy Baron played a vital role in the late going, factoring in seven of the final nine Canisius points. His trey with 2:55 left made it 65-61. His dish to Manhertz for a layup with 1:02 remaining opened a 69-65 lead. And then, following a Siena turnover, the Griffs worked the shot clock before Baron pierced Siena’s defenses with a drive that completed the scoring with 16 seconds to go.
Siena (15-17) entered on a four-game winning streak and determined to spring a mild upset. The Saints confronted Baron with a variety of defenses designed to take away his dribble-drives and held him to just 17 points, a total that coach Jimmy Patsos thought would have paved the way to an upset. Baron had 40 in a triple-overtime victory at Siena on Feb. 16.
“Yes I did,” Patsos said. “But let’s face it, they beat us on the boards.”
The Canisius scoring reflected the team concept its star player stressed since his arrival. Perez totaled 13 points and twice inside the final five minutes scored on difficult drives. Senior center Jordan Heath netted 11, most of them on first-half threes. Manhertz and freshman guard Zach Lewis struck for 10 points each. It was balance that stymied Siena in the end.
“Baron’s willing to say ‘It’s OK, it’s not my day. Fine,” Patsos said. “That’s the sign of a great player.”
“I thought Billy, having six assists, made some plays to get the ball inside,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron.
“They did a great job getting us out of our rhythm a few times and prove we could win a game like this where it’s one of those grind-it-down type games and we like to go fast and stuff like that,” Billy Baron said. “We proved a lot to ourselves to get this one, especially being down late in the game.”
The Griffs feasted on threes during a first half after which they trailed, 34-33. Canisius made 8 of 14 shots from behind the arc and Heath, unattended after setting screens for Baron, nailed three of them. Other statistics painted a more ominous picture: just two offensive rebounds, no second-chance points, just six points in the paint and three free throws attempted against one of the nation’s more foul-plagued teams. Something had to change.
“I thought we got a little off stride,” Jim Baron said. “We got the ball in the second half, really made a conscious effort to get to the free-throw line and I thought guys really did a good job of making the extra pass. We knew they were going to try and take the ball out of Billy’s hands and other guys stepped up.”
No. 4 Canisius heads to the semifinals for the first time in 12 years. The Griffs split the season series with top-seeded Iona, with each winning in the other’s building. The Gaels are fourth in the nation in scoring at 84 points a game and exceeded that average in Saturday’s 94-71 quarterfinal victory over Rider.