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PLENTY AT STAKE FOR LOCALS

Niagara still has a chance to win a regular season title. For Canisius and St. Bonaventure, it comes down to a fight to stay out of those prequarterfinal games that are loathed in conference tournaments.

Those are the scenarios that will be played out in today's top Big 4 action. Things are particularly tight in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, where each team has just one game left in their season.

Only one team -- No. 8 Fairfield -- has locked in its seed for next week's MAAC Tournament at HSBC Arena. The other nine schools can all move based on the results of this weekend's games. Seeds 7-10 are sent to prequarterfinals Friday and thus must win four games to take the tournament. In the first three years of this format, only one bottom-four seed (Manhattan in 1998) even won two games.

Here's a rundown of today's action:

Niagara plays Siena at Pepsi Arena in Albany (4:30; Empire, Radio 1440). The Purple Eagles (14-12 overall, 11-6 MAAC) can pull even with Siena (19-9, 12-5) with a victory in the regular season finales for both schools.

Siena can clinch the top seed for the MAAC Tournament with a victory. That's because Iona (also 19-9, 12-5) was upset at home by Rider, 65-61, on Thursday night. Even if Iona wins its finale Sunday at Manhattan, it would lose a tie-breaker to Siena because Siena won both regular-season meetings.

A Niagara win today and an Iona loss Sunday would leave Niagara, Siena and Iona all at 12-6. The tie would be broken by the best record against the fourth-place team in the MAAC, still to be determined. That's because each team would be 2-2 against the other two, so head-to-head competition wouldn't settle the deadlock.

"The slot you finish isn't as important as playing well," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "If we win this game it's going to mean we're playing good basketball because we're playing Siena on their home floor and they're playing very well right now (the Saints have won five straight and 10 of 12)."

"That's going to be more meaningful to all of us, I'm sure, than the fact of where we'd finish. . . . You're going to have three wars (in the tournament) no matter what."

Niagara conceivably could still slide as low as sixth via tie-breakers because Rider, Marist and Manhattan are all just a game back at 10-7.

Canisius (17-9, 9-8) can climb out of the bottom four of the league standing -- and thus avoid a prequarterfinal Friday afternoon -- with a win tonight at Marist (7:30, Radio 550). The Red Foxes (15-12, 10-7) have lost four of five while Canisius has won three straight and six of its last seven.

The Griffs could finish as high as fourth with a win. A loss leaves them seventh and in a prequarterfinal Friday at 4:45.

"I haven't made a big deal about the play-in game all year and I'm not going to start now," said Canisius coach Mike MacDonald. "I believe in these guys and I believe in this team whether we've got to play four (games) or play three. I know and these guys know how good we are and how good we can be

"We've said all along we want to be playing well going into the tournament and I think we are."

St. Bonaventure tries to stop its two-game slide in the Atlantic 10 when it hosts Fordham at 7:30 in the Reilly Center (Radio 1300, 95.7 FM). The Bonnies (15-10, 6-7) are one game behind Dayton in the battle for fifth in the A-10, the last first-round bye in the tournament March 7-11 in Philadelphia. Fordham (12-13, 4-9) has beaten the Bonnies three straight times, including a 76-67 win Jan. 9.

The news on Bona's injury front remains murky. Center Peter Van Paassen, who sat out the last two games (losses at Duquesne and Xavier) is expected to try his gimpy ankle tonight and see some action. Forward Robert Cheeks (sprained knee) played only five minutes at Xavier but should be available. Freshman point guard Marques Green (charley horse) remains doubtful. Without Green, Bona committed a season-high 22 turnovers in Wednesday's 77-60 loss at Xavier.

Also tonight, the University at Buffalo is staging a women's/men's doubleheader at Alumni Arena. The UB women (18-7, 9-5) play Bowling Green (10-15, 6-8) at 5 p.m., while the men (3-21, 1-14) meet Miami of Ohio (13-13, 9-6) at 7 (Radio 1520).

The UB women still harbor hopes of a third-place finish overall in the MAC, which would get them the final first-round bye in the conference tourney. They are a half-game behind Ball State (10-5), but own a tie-breaker advantage over the Cardinals by virtue of their head-to-head victory.

If UB doesn't hit third, it has already clinched a first-round home game next Saturday night at 7. The men's game against Marshall originally scheduled for 7 p.m. that night has been shifted to 2 p.m.

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