Canisius survived Fairfield on Saturday afternoon in a game that could have passed for an early-round tussle in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament.
There wasn’t much in the way of artistry but a lot of grit. Tempers flared. Shoves were exchanged. And the team that would have been pegged a pronounced underdog made life miserable for the favorite before the pecking order held true in the end.
The Griffs’ 90-78 win over the Stags at the Koessler Athletic Center was in some ways just what their point guard ordered. Billy Baron had said after Thursday’s defeat that Canisius needed to play more like Quinnipiac had that night, which meant tenaciously, urgently and fearlessly.
The Griffs finally tapped into those qualities once a multi-player skirmish unfolded with 14:22 left. Down four points at the time, Canisius used the spark of a plus-two exchange in technical fouls to launch a 20-7 run that tamed a team it had beaten by 26 back on the first of the month.
“The second time you play a team it’s going to be a battle,” Canisius coach Jim Baron said. “This team has won some games. They beat Manhattan, they beat Niagara. They got some players and we knew it was going to be physical.”
As in many tournament-like games, the unexpected reigned. Billy Baron scored a team-high 22 points but attempted a season-low eight field goals, making just two, and both of those were first-half threes. What damage the nation’s third-leading scorer inflicted came at the foul line (16 of 18) and in his willingness to pass out of Fairfield’s hawking high double-teams (nine assists).
“For Billy to have only eight shots, he still was a presence out there,” said Canisius center Jordan Heath.
With Baron reasonably contained, Canisius needed a scorer. Back to the fore stepped Zach Lewis, who had scored in double figures in eight of nine games before the last four, when he averaged less than five. But he sprang for 21 points and six boards against the Stags while cashing 4 of 6 shots from behind the arc.
The game turned the way of Canisius when a multi-player skirmish erupted from seemingly harmless beginnings. Play was delayed for 19 minutes while officials viewed the altercation on the video monitors and explained their findings to the coaches. Fairfield point guard KJ Rose (13 points) was assessed a double-technical and ejected. The original participants, Heath and Amadou Sidibe, also were hit with T’s.
Baron made five of the six technicals and made two more free throws eight seconds later. The Griffs had been revitalized, much to the dismay of Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson.
“I didn’t see much,” Johnson said. “I relied on my guys and my guys told me Jordan Heath stomped one of our players on the head. And considering their reaction, both Amadou and KJ, I tend to believe them.
“We were controlling the whole thing. I don’t know what to tell you. It completely changed everything.”
“I did not step on his head,” Heath said. “I was called for an offensive foul. I was talking to the ref. I tripped over the person defending me and you saw what happened.”
“He just kind of back-pedaled because he was off-balance a little bit,” Billy Baron said. “It was a complete mistake.”
Billy Baron tried to intervene as a peacemaker but was confronted by Rose, who appeared to put his hands around Baron’s neck.
“He’s a freshman,” Baron said. “It was probably heat of the moment, tight game, they lose their cool.”
Fairfield (6-23, 3-15) struggled from there, shot just 29 percent for the second half and wasn’t going to make up ground putting an 89 percent free throw shooter on the line for Canisius. Shouts of “Not him!” resonated from the Stags bench when they needed to foul and Baron had possession. He’s 37 of 41 from the line over the last three games.
The Senior Day victory moved Canisius (19-10, 13-5) into a tie with Manhattan for third in the MAAC and guarantees no worse than a fourth-place finish. They will finish the regular season Friday at Rider and Sunday at Manhattan.