The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season is over. The tournament pairings are set. And the hottest team of the local bunch is Canisius. Not the men. The women.
Three of the four local entries suffered defeats in their finales Sunday with only the Canisius women savoring victory. A 66-63 decision over Rider capped a stretch run that saw the Griffs win four of their last five and vault into the No. 5 seed for this week’s MAAC Tournament at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. The Griffs (13-16, 9-11) meet No. 4 Quinnipiac (19-11, 14-6) in the quarterfinals at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
On the men’s side, Canisius rallied from 13 points down at half to tie Manhattan with 3:15 remaining but failed to sustain in a 68-63 loss to the Jaspers at Draddy Gym. The result gives Manhattan the No. 2 seed and Canisius (20-11, 14-6) the No. 4 seed. The Griffs open the tournament at 2:30 p.m. Saturday with a quarterfinal game against No. 5 Siena (15-16, 11-9). The Saints have won four straight since a 92-88 triple overtime loss to Canisius in Albany on Feb. 16.
Meanwhile, Niagara suffered a pair of losses Sunday and will be made to travel the pre-quarterfinal route. The Niagara men fell, 71-67, at Saint Peter’s to drop to 6-25, 3-17. The Purple Eagles are seeded 11th and face Marist (12-18, 9-11) in a game very loosely scheduled for 9 p.m. Thursday.
The Niagara women (10-19, 8-12) were beaten at home by what’s now a 20-win Fairfield team, 74-62, and will play the first game of the MAAC Tournament at 9:30 a.m. Thursday against Monmouth (7-24, 6-14).
The headline game Sunday was the showdown between Canisius and Manhattan for the No. 2 men’s seed. The silver lining for the Griffs: They put together a road comeback and nearly pulled out a win despite a harassing Manhattan defense that virtually took Billy Baron out of the game. A 24.9 per-game scorer, Baron managed just 10 points on 2-of-10 from the floor in his lowest-scoring game since Dec. 6.
The Griffs tied it on a Chris Perez (13 points) three with 3:15 to go but failed on three chances to take the lead and never scored again. The Jaspers led, 64-63, on a Rhamel Brown free throw with 2:11 left, then by 66-63 on a George Beamon steal and layup with 1:22 to go. RaShwan Stores finished completed the Jaspers’ series sweep with two free throws with five seconds left.
Niagara’s regular season ended with the familiar disappointment of a potential win that got away. The Purple Eagles edged ahead, 59-57, on two Antoine Mason free throws with 4:57 remaining but surrendered the advantage with 4:14 to go and never regained the lead in the loss at Saint Peter’s. The Peacocks kept Niagara at bay by making all six free throw attempts over the final 20 seconds.
Mason scored a game-high 20 points for Niagara but connected on just 6 of 18 shots from the field. The No. 2 scorer in the country, Mason completed the regular season with 760 points, a 25.3 average, and is up to third on the school career list with 1,868 points. Senior guard Marvin Jordan hit 5 of 9 from three-point range and finished with 17 points while freshman guard Wesley Myers scored 11.
Niagara (6-24, 3-16) enters the MAAC Tournament as the 11th and final seed but buoyed by the knowledge it has played most everyone tough. Seven of those defeats were by six points or less and three were by two points or less. And their pre-quarterfinal draw for a 9 p.m. tip-off Thursday is the last team they’ve beaten – Marist (12-18, 9-11). The Purple Eagles won, 80-74, on Monteagle Ridge Jan. 24 then lost to the RedFoxes on the road, 78-64, a week later.
On the women’s side, Canisius opened a nine-point lead on a Crystal Porter lay-up with two minutes left and held on against Rider. Sophomore Tiahana Mills went for a career-high 19 points with five rebounds and five assists while Porter finished with 16 points and Kayla Hoohuli with 11.
“We set the goal at the beginning of the year to finish in the top five,” said Canisius coach Terry Zeh. “We had our backs against the wall down the stretch, but got some help from other teams and took advantage with two huge wins this weekend. I’m proud of our team for getting to that goal.”
A big challenge awaits. Quinnipiac swept the season series with Canisius with a 65-55 victory here on Dec. 21 and a 65-51 decision at home Feb. 9.
Niagara (10-19, 8-12) trailed Fairfield, 32-31, at intermission, hung tough but succumbed down the stretch despite a career performance from senior guard Chanel Johnson, Johnson matched her career high of 24 points on 11-of-18 shooting and was the only Purple Eagle in double figures. Fairfield (20-9, 15-5) cemented the outcome by scoring 16 points off 12 Niagara turnovers.
The Purple Eagles swept the in-season meetings with Monmouth, winning by 48-45 at home on Jan. 19 and 85-57 at Monmouth at Feb. 22. The winner gets No. 1 seed Iona in a noon Friday quarterfinals.