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Immediate reactions: Iona 101, Canisius 91

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Every basketball game against the Iona Gaels inevitably becomes a track meet, as Tim Cluess’ club dares foes to keep pace score for score.

Canisius competed in style—converting in transition, throwing down violent alley-oops and protecting the basketball—for 35 of the 40 minutes on Sunday afternoon.

Unfortunately, a cold-shooting close to the game doomed the Griffs, who fell 101-91 in front of a sellout crowd at the Koessler Athletic Center.

Trailing just 80-77 with 5:03 left, Canisius missed eight of its next nine shots—including two open three-point looks from Jordan Heath (right)—and before Jim Baron could turn his head, the Griffs trailed 92-79.

The Griffs fall to 10-4 in the conference, wasting a prime chance to put a stranglehold on the MAAC with weekend losses to contenders Manhattan and Iona.

The turning point: From Canisius head coach Jim Baron’s perspective, the game swung in Iona’s favor long before Canisius’ late shooting slump.

With 12:58 left and the Griffs nursing a 63-60 edge, a smart double team in the right corner by Billy Baron and Phil Valenti forced A.J. English into an ill-advised cross-court pass. Canisius freshman Zach Lewis intercepted the pass and raced down the court with a clear path to the bucket.

Instead of driving straight to the rim, Lewis hesitated—peeked over his shoulder at the trailing defender, presumably in an attempt to draw an “and-one”—and Iona’s Isaiah Williams clubbed Lewis, smashing him hard to the floor, directly on his shoulder.

A Flagrant Foul Type I was called, and Billy Baron sank the two free throws, but Williams remained in the game as the crowd clamored for an ejection.

Lewis missed the next two and half minutes, and, to rub salt in the wound, Williams sank two corner threes during his absence.

When the Canisius freshman did return to the floor for the final 10:25, he didn’t attempt a shot and committed three fouls.

Reflecting on the flagrant foul, Jim Baron noted that Lewis was a little woozy and stunned upon his return to the floor—a surprising admission considering the sports-wide focus on limiting head injuries.

“The kid could have been killed,” an angry Jim Baron told the media post-game. “The whole tide just changed from then on. When [Williams] grabbed [Lewis] like that over the neck and threw him down, that was a flagrant situation and could have knocked him out for the year.”

When asked separately if the Lewis incident twisted the flow in Iona’s favor, Billy Baron was a little more measured, saying, “Potentially, yeah,” before noting that, with a few more favorable bounces this weekend, the outcomes of the two tilts could have been drastically different.

Can this Canisius team beat a contender in a close game? The win in New Rochelle earlier this year suggested so, and perhaps Manhertz’s absence today was a reasonable excuse.

Still, it’s difficult to be a Canisius fan and have confidence that Jim Baron’s team can stave off Manhattan or Iona—two well-coached, veteran teams—in a tight tournament game.

One more swing: This play didn’t receive quite the post-game attention that the aforementioned flagrant foul did, but it’s worth noting.

With Canisius trailing 75-73 with 6:33 left, Jordan Heath stepped in front of a strong drive by an Iona guard, hoping to draw a charging foul. The ref’s whistle came a few seconds after the impact, but when Heath looked hopefully up at the official, the signal for a block was given.

A look of disbelief from Heath was met by a chorus of boos from the KAC faithful, and, just seconds after the ensuing in-bounds, Phil Valenti fouled A.J. English on a three-pointer. The sophomore hit two of the three, and suddenly Iona was beginning to distance itself from Canisius.

That well-oiled machine: Judging by Iona’s 12-2 MAAC-leading record, most opponents simply can’t keep pace with the Gaels’ offense, a relentlessly-attacking, well-oiled machine potent enough to win the conference and advance to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Averaging 83.8 points per game (t-7th in the nation) entering Sunday, Iona hasn’t skipped a beat despite losing starters MoMo Jones and Taaj Ridley to graduation.

Sure, the Gaels have relatively little interest in defending (they’re ranked No. 325 in the nation)—some things never change—but their frighteningly-consistent offense creates wildly entertaining, unpredictable affairs.

Look at the recent history between the schools—Canisius lost 89-85 in the MAAC semifinals last year, then pulled out an 85-83 squeaker in New Rochelle earlier this year.

A little English: Iona sophomore A.J. English has stepped in seamlessly for the graduated Jones, dropping a career-high 32 points on the Griffs on an efficient 10-17 shooting, 4-6 from downtown, and five rebounds and six assists.

For much of the game—especially with usual Griffin-assassin Sean Armand held scoreless in the first half—English received attention from Canisius’ top defender, Chris Perez, a daunting task due to the transfer’s strength and tenacity.

English wasn’t fazed. If you guard him too tightly, he’ll accelerate to the rim. If he had an inch space, he’d rise and fire—he’s shooting a stellar 41 percent from three-point range this year.

The scoring guard has returned hungry after breaking his wrist in January 2013, forcing him out of action for the final 15 games—including the MAAC Tournament and NCAA appearance.

English’s breakout isn’t too shocking, though, as he won MAAC Rookie of the Week honors three times before the injury in 2012-13.

Perez’s leadership: Sunday’s loss was the first time we’ve seen Chris Perez truly step forward as a go-to scorer. The ball was in his hands down the stretch just as often as Billy Baron’s, and Iona had no answer defensively for the burly two-guard (well, really no answer for anyone, but that would hurt my point).

Smartly, Perez attacked the rim time and time again, drawing contact and finishing strong en route to a team-high 25 points. Even more encouraging for Perez? The 8-11 outing from the free-throw line, where he’s just a 66 percent shooter for the season.

Valenti’s first start: He may be known for his ostrich-legs skipping celebration and goofy grins, but freshman Phil Valenti is proving a useful player.

Sunday marked the Aquinas alum’s first start filling in for Chris Manhertz, who broke two bones in his face during Friday night’s loss to Manhattan (see him wearing a mask below).

Valenti combined with fellow Rochester native Jordan Heath for 18 of the Griffins first 25 points, but he showed surprising confidence in hitting an elbow jumper and shocked the crowd with an unimpeded three-pointer, just his third of the season.

The energetic youngster isn’t a one-dimensional player, either, as he found Jordan Heath on a cut through the middle and again in the post for two buckets. Fifteen points, nine rebounds (five offensive) and four assists was an exceptional outing for Valenti, who should be a fan-favorite in time.

Brian Dux: Four former Griffs and the entire 1994 softball team were inducted into the Canisius sports hall of fame today, but perhaps most notable was the entrance of Brian Dux.

The ex-Orchard Park Quaker and Canisius men’s basketball star is widely recognized for his heart on the floor and courage off of it, as he fought out of a coma following a car accident suffered while playing professional basketball in England.

Keep an eye out for a column on Dux by The Buffalo News’ Bucky Gleason in Monday’s paper.

Stat-line I liked:
—The lead changed hands 14 times tonight, a good indication of the seesaw battle. These Iona-Canisius games are a joy to watch, regardless of the result.

Stat-line I didn’t like:
—7. Canisius used just two substitutes tonight with Manhertz out of the lineup, and neither Dominique Raney nor Josiah Heath made an impact.

What’s next?:
—Canisius gets another taste of the Battle of the Bridge at 9 p.m. on Valentine’s Day—this Friday—at Niagara’s Gallagher Center.

(Photos are courtesy of Robin David Brown and Don Nieman from previous Canisius games this year)

TAGGED: canisius griffins, college basketball, immediate reactions, iona gaels, maac

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