Griffs stunned by Nicholas’ Miller-esque heroics - VIDEO

Immediate reactions: Hurricanes 5, Sabres 3


Immediate reactions: Canisius 87, Niagara 74

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

Canisius’ starting big men hear a lot of criticism. Senior center Chris Manhertz has trouble staying on the floor due to foul trouble, while 6’11 forward Jordan Heath would rather lurk on the perimeter than battle inside.

In the Griffins’ 87-74 win over Niagara, the spotlight was on the match-up between two of the top three scorers in all of Division I college hoops, the Purple Eagles’ Antoine Mason and Canisius’ Billy Baron.

Both stars rose to the occasion—Baron finished with 31 (10-17 shooting, 7-8 from the line) to Mason’s 29—but in large part, their respective lines negated each other.

The supporting casts of both teams would make the difference, and it was Canisius’ front-court that turned the tide in the Griffs’ favor—beginning in the game’s first 20 seconds.

**On Canisius’ first possession, Jordan Heath took a high-low feed from Manhertz with his back to the basket, drop-stepped to his left and scored off the glass—drawing a foul on Marcus Ware in the process.

**16:46: Manhertz popped out to the perimeter to set a bone-rattling ball-screen on Wesley Myers, freeing Billy Baron to drain an open three.

**15:47: Manhertz lowered his shoulder to the right of the basket, swept horizontally across the lane and scored on a soft left-handed hook shot. Eleven seconds later, Jordan Heath rose to reject a Ramone Snowden runner in the lane.

**13:59: A nifty spin move by Niagara freshman Wesley Myers managed to split the top of the Canisius zone, but there lurked the elder Heath, who practically blocked Myers’ feeble runner with his elbow.

Even Josiah Heath, who’s played error-prone basketball for much of this year, sustained the Griffs’ momentum when he and Phil Valenti gave Manhertz and Heath a breather.

In the ensuing 5:51, Canisius went on a 10-4 run—with six points and four boards coming from Josiah Heath.

Trying to combat the Griffs’ advantage inside, Niagara committed eight fouls in the game’s first 8:06, forcing an already-shortened rotation into smart defensive basketball.

A breath-taking moment: With 6:15 left in the game, Billy Baron—who twisted his ankle a few possessions prior—drained a three-pointer from the right wing to put Canisius back up by 15, weathering a 21-10 Niagara run.

When Niagara head coach Chris Casey signaled timeout, Jim Baron walked almost to mid-court, urging the already-standing Canisius fans into an even more impassioned fervor.

The sequence was one of those spine-tingling moments that you’re inexplicably able to freeze in time—it’ll be the Baron-and-Baron, father-son moment that will stick with me long after Billy graduates. 

Smart game-plan: I hate to say this, but Canisius’ sage leader Jim Baron coached circles around Niagara neophyte Chris Casey, who’s in his first season as a NCAA Division I head coach. Baron’s strategy emphasized his team’s strengths, especially with the physical advantage mentioned in the lede.

The preparation was deeper, though, as—knowing that Niagara starting guard Tahjere McCall was inactive because of a tongue laceration (which sounds painful, but what was he eating, tree bark?)—Baron implemented a 3/4-court press to prey on the Purple Eagles’ dearth of ball-handlers.

Between the press and a compact zone, Canisius’ defense stymied Mason, who scored six points in the game’s first 17 minutes as the Griffins built their lead.

And, there’s this (I feel like a bit of a tool for embedding my own tweet, but that’s life sometimes).

I know Chris Casey has the crutch of a brief recruiting process, two unfortunate transfers and a bizarre injury (McCall), but the only reason the Purple Eagles clawed back into the game was because of Mason’s individual excellence.

Seriously, Mason was terrific—if he had an ounce of a supporting cast, Niagara would be a middle-of-the-road MAAC team and not a team that’s fighting to stay out of the cellar.

Baron’s stitches: Two minutes into the second half, Antoine Mason bulled his way down the left side of the lane, and accidentally scratched Billy Baron on the forehead.

The Canisius star gushed blood, staining his No. 12 jersey and forcing him back to the Griffs’ locker room for six stitches.

Interesting fact: Baron returned wearing Harold Washington’s old No. 3 jersey with athletic tape concealing the last name. Store that one in your brain for future Canisius trivia questions.

Poor Wesley Myers: Stepping into the lineup in place of McCall, freshman Wesley Myers had a forgettable game, a performance in which his emotions got the best of him.

Baron drove past him at will, dropped three-pointers over the top of him and played physical perimeter defense on the undersized youngster who was probably thrust unfairly into this kind of a role.

Myers’ frustration boiled over into pushing and jawing with Baron on two occasions, leading to a technical on the freshman.

When Baron nailed another three over Myers with 1:45 left, the Niagara freshman could just smile, shake his head and walk toward his bench.

Sold-out crowd: As is typical with the Battle of the Bridge—the designation given to the rivalry between Niagara and Canisius across all sports—the Koessler Athletic Center was at capacity, and it was startling how few tickets were allotted to Niagara students. I doubt there were more than 50-60 NU students in the stands.

What’s next?: Canisius remains at home for a 2 p.m. game on Sunday, squaring off against Marist, a team that beat the Griffins on the road earlier this season. Niagara hosts Marist at 7 p.m.

(Photos are courtesy of Don Nieman from the Canisius vs. South Dakota game from earlier this season—see the full gallery here).

TAGGED: antoine mason, battle of the bridge, billy baron, canisius griffins, college basketball, maac, niagara purple eagles

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