SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — From the moment he set foot in Buffalo in the summer of 2012, Billy Baron had one singular, abiding basketball goal: Lead Canisius back to the NCAA Tournament.
As the son of the coach and the star of his new team, Baron carried the twin burden of expectations, and he accepted it without complaint. When he was named MAAC Player of the Year on Thursday, he said he would trade 100 such awards for one conference championship.
Baron said he was prepared to play 120 minutes here if that’s what it took. And when the Griffs prepared to play their first MAAC semifinal in 12 years on Sunday at the MassMutual Center, he felt more physically ready than ever.
“Yeah. I was ready to go,” Baron said. “When I fired up those engines. I looked at the clock and said, ‘OK, it’s time to go!’ I felt like I could run forever. When your back’s against the wall and you’re fighting for survival, you’ll literally do anything.”
Baron did virtually everything against Iona in the semis. When the Griffs fell behind by 10 points with 4:18 to play, he willed them back into the game. During the next 2:40, he scored nine points and stole the ball twice as Canisius stormed back to tie it, 70-all.
At that point, the small but enthusiastic contingent of Canisius fans – which included ex-mayor and Griffs star Tony Masiello – was beside itself, certain that Baron was going to lift his team to the brink of its first NCAA berth in 18 years, and second since 1957.
But in the end, he came up a little short. Baron, the best three-point shooter in school history, had three big chances from behind the arc in the last two minutes of the game and missed them all as the Griffs lost a heartbreaker to Iona, 75-72.
The last three-pointer was a desperation try from 33 feet, one that Baron left well short. But the other two were shots that Baron has made countless times in his two years at Canisius.
It was the second miss, a straight-on look from the top of the key with 36 seconds left and the game tied at 70, that will torment Baron for years to come. Team player and competitor to the end, he felt responsible and devastated at the same time.
“I don’t know how I missed those last ones – not the last one, but the two threes prior to that,” Baron said. “I don’t know how I missed those, I really don’t. I’m still trying to find a way to grasp that.”
Basketball can be a cruel master at times. Sometimes, the shots simply don’t go in. After a dazzling offensive first half, the Griffs and Gaels settled into one of those typically grinding MAAC tourney games in the last 20 minutes, where every possession was a struggle.
Iona, which leads the nation in three-pointers made, shot 2-for-11 in the second half. Canisius was 1-for-11. Analyze the stat sheet all you like. One three-pointer separated the teams in the end. One ‘three’ that Billy Baron feels in his heart he should have made.
“You know, they trusted me,” said Baron, who finished with 23 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals. “I feel like I let them down.”
Baron’s voice broke when he said it. He said he felt honored that his teammates put so much trust in him this year, that they allowed him to carry a heavy offensive load and believed he would make the right decisions in the offense. He admitted his shot was a little off here, because opponents took him out of his usual shooting rhythm.
He seemed more disappointed for other people than himself. Baron wanted to play in the NCAAs, like any player. It was his dream, but the dream of countless others, from his father and his brother, Jimmy Jr., to all the Canisius fans who had waited so long.
“The NCAA Tournament, that’s all I want,” Baron said. “I wanted to do it for my father. I wanted to do it for the Canisius community. But all I can say is I’m thankful for the opportunity they gave me and my father.”
It’s no surprise that Baron would take it to heart. That’s one thing that made him such a great player – in the minds of some observers, the best MAAC player since Lionel Simmons at LaSalle more than 20 years ago.
But to suggest he let people down? Jordan Heath, the Griffs’ 6-foot-11 center, played one of his typically soft games against Iona. In the biggest game of his life, Heath played small. He had four points and five rebounds and was a meager physical presence.
Baron let people down? The Canisius program was a mess when he decided to join his father in Buffalo in the summer of 2012. Baron revived hope in a small, disspirited fan base that had grown resigned to second-rate performances.
The Griffs had gone 10 years without making a MAAC tourney semifinal when the Barons arrived on campus. They lifted the program to the point where simply winning a quarterfinal wasn’t the goal, but winning the whole thing.
That’s the gift Baron will leave behind – that he showed Buffalo hoop fans what it’s like to have higher standards.
“Obviously, I put up a few points this year,” he said, “but that’s what I expect out of myself. My brother (who plays pro ball in Rome) holds me to that standard and he’s ingrained it in me to hold myself to that standard.
“It’s really tough to come up short. But you have to let it push you. You have to move forward. That’s going to make me be in the gym that many more hours this summer.”
The kid will be fine. Baron will play pro ball somewhere and be better for it.
Soon enough, when Griffs fans sit in the Koessler Center, they’ll realize just how good they had it.