From the lowest point of its season -- and perhaps the last several years -- to the highest in just three days. Yes, this has been one bizarre campaign for the Canisius basketball team.
After losing to archrival Niagara for the seventh straight time and falling to 5-17 Wednesday night, the Golden Griffins entered Saturday's game against conference co-leader Manhattan tied for last place with Rider. So what happened? Canisius put together its most complete performance of the year and jolted the Jaspers, 86-75, before 1,181 in the Koessler Center.
The Griffs took charge with an 18-4 run early in the second half to snap their three-game losing streak and improve to 5-10 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Senior Kevin Downey poured in 27 points and junior Corey Herring had another sensational game with 21 points and 12 rebounds as Canisius snapped an eight-game skid to the Jaspers that dated to 2002.
"We didn't deserve to win," said Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez, whose team fell to 15-8, 11-4. "Canisius outplayed us, and they deserved to win. Kevin Downey was spectacular. He made every big shot down the stretch."
The Griffs made 10 of their first 12 shots, hit 51.7 percent overall and put four players in double figures. They were 20 of 25 at the free-throw line, had a 37-35 rebounding advantage and played with fire and energy largely absent while they were losing nine of their previous 10 games.
They apparently got their passion reignited after practice Thursday from a visit by Buffalo Bills safety Coy Wire. A former Academic All-America at Stanford, Wire does motivational speaking and has a prominent charitable foundation in his name.
Wire is represented by local businessman Ron Raccuia, a Canisius grad who is a former scorer at Griffs games and a close friend of coach Mike MacDonald. Raccuia arranged the meeting, and Wire threw the coaches out of the locker room before having his say with the players.
"Guys really took to it," Downey said. "It's nothing that we haven't said all along, but it's just guys believing in a system and believing and trusting each other. He rejuvenated everyone's passion. We were down after losing some games, and he gave us that fire back."
"It was from somebody totally different and off the wall," MacDonald said. "It wasn't somebody who played here and graduated in the '40s or '50s who guys can't relate to. It's a guy they can relate to, only a few years older than them."
The Griffs took the floor for warm-ups with white T-shirts that had the word "Believe" in script on the front. MacDonald benched starters Darnell Wilson and Jon Popofski for the first five minutes of each half, partly to get more production from the reserves and partly because the duo struggled at Niagara. Wilson had 14 points off the bench, while new starters Ola Matti and Joe Young were solid defensively.
Canisius overcame 21 first-half points by Manhattan guard Jeff Xavier to lead much of the stanza before falling behind at the break, 41-40. But Downey had 10 points in the game's key run that put Canisius in front, 58-47, and left Manhattan playing catch-up the rest of the way. Xavier scored just four points in the second half as Manhattan hit just 12 of 33 from the field.
"I gotta give Mike (MacDonald) credit because they played motivated basketball from the beginning," Gonzalez said.
Against a Manhattan team with only eight players, Canisius pushed the tempo and got a huge break when 6-foot-8 Jaspers center Arturo Dubois got two quick first-half fouls and didn't score for the game's first 33 minutes. He averages 14.7 points but finished with just five.
"We can't change what's happened, but we can learn from it," said MacDonald, whose team hosts Marist on Monday night. "All we can focus on now is the next three weeks and moving forward."