For one day, at least, there was happiness in the Koessler Center. Three Canisius seniors who have endured far more trauma in their careers than most college students face ended their home schedule on a positive note Saturday.
Guard Kevin Downey scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half, backcourt mate Jon Popofski hit a big three-pointer to kick-start the offense and center Mike Hanley got his first start of the season as the Golden Griffins overcame Youngstown State, 75-68, before a Senior Day crowd of 1,323.
The Griffs fell into an embarrassing 13-0 hole and were still down 11 (42-31) with 16 minutes to go in the BracketBusters game. Then their offense started humming. Canisius hit 20 of 26 from the field in the second half (6 of 10 from three-point range) to win for the second time in its last three games.
Their 50-point second half -- one shy of their season high -- came without injured forward Corey Herring (14.4 points). He had his left foot in a boot after spraining it Monday against Marist but might play Friday at Saint Peter's.
Though Downey, Popofski and Hanley have never had a winning season in college, they've survived major adversity. Downey lost his father and high school coach, ex-Livonia mentor Tom Downey, to cancer three years ago this month. Hanley and Popofski were working out in Koessler with Richard Jones on the day the Canisius player collapsed and died in May 2004.
"This [win] was well-deserved. They really deserve it," said Griffs coach Mike MacDonald. "We played with poise and never dropped our heads even when we got down 10 in the second half. These guys deserve to feel good tonight because they played well."
The trio of seniors was introduced before the game with their families and walked to center court to embrace the embattled MacDonald, who might have been coaching his last game at home. It was a particularly touching moment for Downey, who came hand-in-hand with his mother, Linda, to a loud ovation.
"It was pretty emotional. There was one person that was missing walking out with me and you take that hard," Downey said of his late father. "But I know he'd be proud of me and it was good to go out this way."
The result left both teams 7-18 and allowed the Griffs to escape what would have been another galling defeat in a season full of them. Youngstown, from the Horizon League, has lost 30 straight nonconference road games since winning at Robert Morris on Jan. 2, 2001.
Downey took over during a 10-0 run that gave Canisius a 55-48 lead. He scored eight of the points, canning a pair of three-pointers and a 15-foot jumper that put the Griffs in front for good, 50-48.
"At halftime I knew I had to be more aggressive because Corey was out," Downey said. "I tried to get my teammates more involved, coach [MacDonald] set up some good plays for me and I got a couple layups in transition that got me going."
Downey was 10 of 16 from the field, including 9 of 11 in the second half, and clinched the win on a conventional three-point play with 26.9 seconds left that gave Canisius a 73-68 lead. He added four assists, three rebounds and had no turnovers in 39 minutes.
Downey's career totals are 1,511 points, 483 rebounds and 393 assists. He's seven assists shy of being the only 1,500-400-400 man in Canisius history.
"That was one of the best games I've ever seen him play and I've seen every one," said Hanley, who was scoreless in three minutes. "He played within himself and that's the type of leader he is. I enjoyed watching him."
Junior forward Darnell Wilson had 11 of his 17 points in the first five minutes of the second half to spark the Griffs back into the game with a 14-4 run that cut Youngstown's lead to 46-45. Popofski also starred in that burst, canning the Griffs' first trey of the day after 11 misses and feeding Wilson for an alley-oop layup and a dunk.
"The second half was great," said Popofski, who had eight points. "We started working the ball around a lot more. Darnell played so well and finished everything. The reason we got open shots was because we were moving the ball. In the first half, we weren't doing that."
The Griffs hit 76.9 percent from the field in the second half, just shy of the school-record 77.3 percent clip against the University at Buffalo in 1983. Freshman Joe Young had a pair of three-pointers in the final four minutes and equaled his season high with 13 points.
Canisius is 8-1 on Senior Day under MacDonald, with the lone loss to Niagara in 2002.
"There's a lot of emotion, a lot going on," MacDonald said. "Sometimes it can go great but . . . we were kind of caught up in the moment. They jumped on us quick but we didn't hesitate or flinch and I was proud of our guys."