LEWISTON — The last time Niagara tried to jump-start its season by putting the bite on Canisius, it was misfortune that bit the Purple Eagles. A severe tongue laceration suffered the day before in practice relegated guard Tahjere McCall to spectator status and left him to agonize on the bench during a 13-point defeat.
“I actually wanted to play, but the doctor said I couldn’t,” McCall said after practice Wednesday. “During the game it was even harder to sit out and watch my boys go through that. It was rough.”
McCall is back in action for tonight’s renewal of a rivalry that planted its roots in 1906 and typically blooms high drama at least once a season. Last year Niagara survived at the Koessler Athletic Center when Billy Baron’s game-winning runner was ruled after the buzzer. Two seasons ago the Griffs knocked off the Purple Eagles in overtime on Monteagle Ridge. The year before that it was Niagara winning by two at home on a layup off an inbounds play with one second left. If the trend holds, tonight’s 9 p.m. tip-off at the Gallagher Center (ESPNU, Radio 550, 1400 AM) will be delicious.
Canisius (16-9, 10-4 MAAC) is determined to regain its footing and secure a regular-season sweep of the series – something it hasn’t accomplished since 1994-95. The Griffs head north with baggage that includes their first two-game losing streak since mid-November, a slip that dropped them into a three-way tie for second in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
But now the Griffs are the ones dealing with a depleted lineup. Senior forward and rebounding leader Chris Manhertz suffered a broken nose last Friday against Manhattan, missed Sunday’s Iona game and is unlikely to play after undergoing further medical treatment.
Still, based on record one might judge Niagara as overmatched. The Purple Eagles have lost four straight and six of their last seven in falling to 6-19 overall and 3-11 in the MAAC. But first-place Iona and preseason favorite Manhattan can attest that there’s more to the Purple Eagles than the raw numbers might indicate. The Gaels came from 12 behind down the stretch to escape with a one-point victory last Friday and, two days later, the Jaspers also rallied to win by one.
“One thing we have to do is start finishing games and winning those games because ‘almost’ isn’t good enough,” McCall said. “Once we get to March, if we ‘almost’ beat the first team in the league but we lose, we still lose and we still go home. So the first thing we have to do is start figuring out the things we have to do at the end of the game to win those games. Any given day anybody can be the best team in the league.”
Chris Casey, Niagara’s first-year coach, said his team’s improvement results from an array of factors.
“I think we’re making a few more shots,” Casey said. “We were fouling less going into Sunday, but I think we’re getting better at that. Fouling’s been a problem for us. We got a few more guys scoring the ball. We were home, that always helps. I don’t know if it’s so much one specific thing that’s going better for us as maybe some progress in all areas. I think that’s maybe more so the case.”
Tonight’s spotlight shines brightest on two of the nation’s scoring leaders. Heading into Thursday’s games, Niagara’s Antoine Mason continued to top the chart at 26.3 points per game and Baron ranked fifth at 23.6. Baron went for 31, Mason for 29 in the first meeting, a game in which Niagara played backcourt starters Mason, Marvin Jordan and Wesley Myers all 40 minutes. With McCall back, the demands ease. He averaged 14 points last weekend.
“He gives us depth at the guard,” Casey said. “He gives us length at the guard. He’s a good defender. His offensive game is improving. I thought he was showing great improvement going into his injury and then it took him maybe a game or two to get back on track offensively. But he showed some of that this weekend, getting back on track offensively.”