Billy Baron has talked all season long about how this isn’t about him. He can’t go out and beat anybody by himself. He needs the help of his teammates. He’s made it clear that if the Griffs are going to reach their true potential it’s imperative that all five guys on the floor are part of the mix at both ends of the court.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 87-74 loss Canisius hung on Niagara at the Koessler Center on Wednesday night is that contributors abounded. Baron, the nation’s No. 3 scorer, went off for 31 points to score a narrow victory, so to speak, in his matchup against the country’s No. 1 man, Antoine Mason, who had 29. But there was much more to this Canisius triumph than that.
The Griffs got 19 points out of Chris Perez, his third straight outing of 17 or more. Senior power forward Chris Manhertz filled up the stat sheet with 14 points and 11 rebounds while matching his career high with four assists. Center Jordan Heath blocked four shots for the second straight game and is averaging a sliver under four swats over the last seven games. Forwards Josiah Heath and Phil Valenti came off the bench to combine for 10 straight points during a first-half stretch.
And now, for the first time since 2000-01 season, Canisius has beaten Niagara on consecutive tries and a sellout crowd of 2,196 lapped it all up. The rivals split last year’s series, with each winning on the other’s court.
“It feels good,” Jordan Heath said. “We knew we had to kind of pay them back for the whole thing that happened last year. We kind of had a chip on our shoulder going into this game.”
“It’s great to get this win,” Baron said. “We were just not trying to fold in the second half like we’ve done so much. We could be up 20 and that’s like down six to another team lately for us. Us four seniors, we really made sure that we stayed on them and kept it a double-digit game the entire second half.”
Canisius-Niagara is always a physical affair but this one seemed to exceed the norm. Baron suffered a six-stitch cut on his forehead when he collided with Mason early in the second half. He returned three game minutes later and soon was embroiled in a feud with Wesley Myers, the Niagara freshman point guard forced to start because of an injury to Tahjere McCall. Both players were warned after Myers was called for a foul on Baron with 12:20 left. Twenty-three seconds later Myers was hit with a technical.
“He punched me right in the chest the possession before, that’s when I went to the free throw line,” Baron said. “And then he continued to talk trash as I was running up the court.
“I don’t really know what he was trying to do,” Baron said. “He took a lot of cheap shots at me. But I’m not going to waste my time with that.”
Niagara saw it differently.
“I’m not sure really, you’ll have to ask the referees on that,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey of the technical. “That’s two guys playing hard and going at each other. And Wes is very competitive.”
“He said it was on Wes and when I asked him he just kind of avoided the question,” Mason said.
“Throughout the whole game it was a chippy game,” Manhertz said. “We knew coming into the game they were going to be talking trash and doing all that extra stuff. We locked in. We paid attention to the task at hand. And we got the win.”
Canisius shot 50 percent from the field in both halves, finding the open man off double-teams and isolating players down low against a Niagara defense that ranks near the bottom of the country in points allowed and field goal percentage defense. They had just 12 assists on their 28 baskets.
“Chris Perez did a great job,” Baron said. “I saw him a lot and Mason didn’t really have many answers for him. That was kind of like the game, get it in the post, feed these guys in the post, because we knew their one-on-one defense wasn’t the greatest. I think that’s why our assist rate was low, because we were just attacking them one on one and being extremely aggressive.”
Canisus led by 14 at the half and expanded the lead to 20 before Niagara (5-15, 2-7) made a run to within eight behind Mason and Griffs nemesis Marvin Jordan (19 points). The Griffs (13-7, 7-2) answered with a 7-0 run capped by a Baron three launched from another time zone, re-establishing control with just over six minutes left.
“I thought we fought extremely hard throughout the entire game,” Casey said. “We usually do do that, so I was proud of our fight in the game.”
“That’s not our team to quit,” Mason said. “We keep fighting. We’re struggling but we keep fighting.”
Niagara didn’t go easily and doubtless the Purple Eagles will be up for the rematch.
At the Taps.
On Valentine’s Day.
Of all days.