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Niagara, Canisius now focusing on earning bye

Niagara and Canisius hit the midpoint of their league schedules this afternoon and neither harbors any hopes of a regular-season championship.

In fact, it looks like their biggest objective should merely be to finish in the top six of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference to ensure a first-round bye in the league tournament in March at Bridgeport, Conn.

Niagara hosts winless Iona today in the Gallagher Center (Radio 1440 AM) while Canisius tries its luck with first-place Marist in the Koessler Center (Radio 710 AM). Both games start at 2 and 1990s Canisius stars Micheal Meeks and Darrell Barley will be inducted into the school's hall of fame at halftime of the Griffins' game.

Niagara was still hopeful of joining the high-rent district but probably lost its chance with Thursday's 91-86 overtime loss to Marist in the Gallagher Center.

Marist, Manhattan and Loyola are all tied for first in the conference standing. Niagara is tied for fifth with Rider and Canisius is a game back in seventh. The Purple Eagles are 9-10 overall while the Golden Griffins are 8-10.

Fairfield, St. Peter's and Iona are clearly the conference's bottom three. After losing in overtime Thursday at Canisius, Iona (0-17) remains the only winless team in Division I.

What's disconcerting for Niagara is its lack of success against the top teams (0-4 against Siena, Loyola and Marist) in a year that it hoped to contend. Canisius is also 0-4 against the top four, but was expected to be in rebuilding mode under new coach Tom Parrotta.

"We are very hopeful we can continue to get better," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. "Our goal is the same now as it was in July: We want to be the best team whenever that tournament is. Right now, I think Marist is the best. Hopefully we can close the gap."

"I think Niagara has a hell of a team," Marist coach Matt Brady said after Thursday's thriller. "The longer I'm in this league, the more I recognize that Joe Mihalich has the most difficult team and style to prepare for."

The Purple Eagles are certainly much more explosive now that Charron Fisher is back from suspension but their defense is taking too many nights off. In the last seven games, Niagara is averaging 86.1 points. But over their last five, the Purple Eagles are allowing 86.8.

NU gave up 15 points in overtime Thursday, 10 by Marist guard Will Whittington.

"When they had to make plays, they acted like seniors and all-conference players," Mihalich said. "We're not quite there yet."

Canisius faces the unenviable task today of trying to deal with Marist point guard Jared Jordan, who scored 26 points Thursday and clearly showed why he's expected to be conference player of the year. He was coming off a triple-double in an overtime win Monday at Siena (24 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists).

"He's a marvelous player and he has an insatiable will to win," said Brady.

Marist, which has not played in the NCAA Tournament since 1987, is shooting for its first sweep of a Western New York trip since joining the MAAC in 1997.

Said Brady: "We just wanted to come to Buffalo in first place and get out of here in first place."


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