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Niagara was geared up for Canisius’ lickety-split basketball cadence but the trick to keeping pace with the Golden Griffins is making shots early, which forces them to play defense.

But the Purple Eagles fell behind early in Wednesday’s matchup pitting the longtime rivals and eventually lost, 87-74, at the Koessler Center. They trailed, 45-31, by halftime and despite making a late run Niagara’s defense came up short once again.

Defense has been a major bugaboo for Niagara this season and Canisius marched continuously to the free-throw line, where it sank 26 of 29.

“We have to guard without fouling,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “There was too much of a discrepancy on the foul line. Field goals were relatively close, threes were close and I thought our shooting percentages were good and we didn’t turn the ball over. We have to guard without fouling and not put them on the foul line.”

The night started off poorly for Niagara (5-15, 2-7 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) when starting point guard Tahjere McCall wasn’t available because he took an accidental shot in the mouth Tuesday in practice that required stitches on his tongue. Niagara’s medical staff advised Casey that McCall, who’s day-to-day, shouldn’t play for fear of the stitches reopening.

McCall was kind enough to tweet pictures of his tongue hours before tipoff.

“Believe me,” Casey said, “the kid wanted to play.”

McCall, a sophomore tends to freelance and throws headache-inducing passes and tosses up crazy shots but when he’s under control he stabilizes the offense. Lanky with arms that stretch endlessly, McCall is a snarling defender and was the first option to shadow Billy Baron, but the Purple Eagles didn’t have time to think about who was missing and Casey inserted Wesley Myers into the starting lineup.

“Things happen, it’s a college basketball season,” Casey said. “You’re going to have your full roster sometimes and sometimes you’re not and that’s why you have a roster. Obviously he’s an important part of our team but we didn’t spend time worrying about missing him.”

Niagara certainly could have used McCall when they were down by 20 early in the second half but the Purple Eagles were not about to allow the Griffs to blow them away so soon. Not in a rivalry game.

Canisius led 66-50 with 11:57 left. Moments later Antoine Mason, who scored a team-high 29 points, banged in a triple from Myers. After a turnover by Josiah Heath the Purple Eagles were off and running and Marvin Jordan flipped a pass to Mason for a thunderous dunk.

After Baron connected from long distance, Ramone Snowden tipped in his own miss. On the next possession Mason demanded the ball just in front of the Niagara bench, a good 25 feet away from the rim, and buried a three-pointer to make it 68-60.

Said Jordan, who scored 19 points: “We just trusted ourselves more, shared the ball and believed in ourselves more. Believing that if we make the extra pass teammates are going to hit the shot and believing if you take the shot you’re going to make it.”

But it didn’t take long for Canisius to push the lead back to 15 and with 6:24 left in the contest Baron nailed a trey and the Griffs led, 75-60. Niagara couldn’t get the game under double figures again.

email: rmckissic@buffnews.com