For 30 minutes Wednesday night in the First Niagara Center Canisius was a team lacking for answers. Their offense was coming in fits and spurts. Their work at the defensive end left much to be desired. UB had an 11-point lead and appeared poised to take this Big 4 showdown in a rout.
What happened from there defied everything that came before it. Canisius became the team with an unsatiable appetite around the rim. The Griffs were the ones who would latched onto an effective defensive strategy. Down by nine with 12 minutes left, Canisius trampled UB by 23 points the rest of the way and scored a resounding 69-55 victory before a crowd of 4,703.
Billy Baron celebrated his 23rd birthday by scoring a game-high 23 points for the Griffs but the real stars were Chris Perez and Phil Valenti. Perez scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half and Valenti all of his nine after intermission as the Griffs extended their winning streak to three.
UB (4-3) hit the wall with a thud. The Bulls made six of their first 10 second-half shots and then went 3 of 17 the rest of the way. Faced with a zone aimed at slowing Javon McCrea, UB repeatedly fired up from three. Only this time they didn’t go down as they did in Saturday’s victory over St. Bonaventure. The Bulls went 2 of 16 from beyond the arc in the second half after making 4 of 7 in the first half.
McCrea led UB with 13 points while Joshua Freelove (11) and Will Regan (10) also hit double figures. Most notable though was off guard Jarryn Skeete going scoreless. He was 0 of 8 from the field including 0 of 6 from three.
“I thought we played pretty well for about 30 minutes of the game,” UB coach Bobby Hurley said. “And then it slipped away from us. Probably around the 10-minute mark we stopped playing defense the way we needed to. And give Canisius credit for having players that stepped up for them.”
“Teams are going to continue to zone us if we’re not able to play by making perimeter shots,” Hurley said. “When teams game plan for us they know about Javon McCrea and they try to limit what his impact is by playing a zone defense and converging on him. We have to be able to step up and make those type of shots.”
Canisius fed off UB’s poor shooting and had a surprisingly easy time penetrating the interior. The Griffs (6-3) outscored UB 32-24 in the paint, including 20-8 in the second half. Perez and Valenti were major contributors in that regard.
“I thought we had some mismatches we could take advantage of and one of them was Chris Perez,” Coach Jim Baron said. “I thought he was huge, really getting that turned around the second half. We played aggressive. I thought our defense was terrific the second half.”
Canisius wouldn’t buckle after UB opened a 49-40 advantage with 12 minutes to go, Perez had two inside baskets in an 8-0 burst that tied the score at 51 with 7:13 remaining. Baron gave Canisius its first lead, 55-53, on two free throws with 5:43 to go and UB wilted from there while Valenti thrived. The 6-7 redshirt freshman from Aquinas in Rochester scored six straight points and sparked Canisius with his hustle.
“We got great leaders on this team,” Billy Baron said. “Chris Perez is one of them. Jordan really stepped up. And then Phil Valenti was the X factor. I mean, he literally left it on the floor. And that’s what we need. We understood that if we didn’t get stops we had no chance of winning this game.”