ALBANY – Junior forward Phil Valenti scored a career-high 33 points Thursday night to help Canisius College survive the longest game in its 112-year basketball rivalry with Niagara University.
The Griffs finally prevailed, 102-97, in three overtimes in the first-round game in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
The archrivals had played 15 single-OT games and three double-OT games but never had gone to triple-OT.
“We showed tremendous resiliency,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “I’m real proud of our guys. ... They stayed focused. We kept running our offense, we kept attacking. We got to the free-throw line. We rebounded down the stretch and we sealed the deal.”
The win advanced the Golden Griffins (14-18) to a quarterfinal meeting with second-seeded Iona at 9:30 p.m. Friday. Niagara finished 7-25, its third straight 20-loss campaign under coach Chris Casey.
There weren’t any dramatic buckets in the waning minute. Two free throws by Valenti with 1:04 left in the third OT gave Canisius the lead for good, 99-97, and the Griffs got three more foul shots near the end.
But there were all kinds of fireworks the first 54 minutes.
It was the most combined points (199) by two teams in the 35-year history of the MAAC. Canisius’ 102 points was the third most in MAAC tournament history. Valenti’s 33 points was a single-game MAAC tournament record for a Griff.
“If you’re a college basketball fan, you loved that game,” Casey said. “I’m extremely proud of the way our guys fought. I thought we competed very hard. I thought we were really together.”
A Kassius Robertson three-pointer from the corner with 57 seconds left in regulation tied it at 71-71 and forced the first OT.
Niagara star Emile Blackman hit three clutch free throws with 1.1 seconds left in the first overtime to tie it, 86-86. He was fouled on a three-pointer by Griff Kiefer Douse.
Near the end of the second OT, Valenti missed two free-throws and Blackman missed a 24-footer at the buzzer that would have won it.
The 6-foot-7 Valenti, who averages 14 ppg, scored 10 points in overtime and made 14 of 18 shots from the free-throw line.
“We knew when they went zone that the middle was going to be open,” Valenti said. “My teammates did a good job of getting me the ball, and I just put my head down and took it strong.”
Canisius got 20 points from senior guard Malcolm McMillan and 15 from Robertson, the sophomore guard.
Niagara got 26 points from Blackman, 20 from sophomore guard Karonn Davis, 17 from freshman guard Chris Barton and 16 from freshman forward Dominic Robb.
The offensive showing by Niagara was a surprise, especially since the Purple Eagles were without leading scorer Matt Scott due to a foot injury. Niagara ranks 330th out of 346 Division I teams in points per game (63.5). Niagara ranks 343rd out of 346 in three-point percentage (.276) but hit 9 of 21 shots from behind the arc.
The Purple Eagles moved the ball for good shots, especially in the second half. In one stretch they scored on 9 of 10 possessions. Barton’s total was a career high. Both he and Davis were averaging 3.7 ppg. Robb was averaging 5.5.
“I know we lost today but that’s pretty scary for the MAAC next year,” Blackman said. “We put up a lot of points today. We finally figured out how to gel together, play together, and we’ve got a lot of guys who stepped up and played really well. That’s a great thing to look forward to for next year.”
Attrition hurt Niagara. Robb and forward Maurice Taylor both fouled out in the first OT, and that gave Canisius an advantage inside.
McMillan, the 6-foot Baltimore native, had only four points the first 35 minutes, but he scored 15 over the next 20 and had 12 of his points from the foul line.
“I started off kind of slow but my teammates trusted me and I knew I had to step up as a senior,” McMillan said. “There’s no tomorrow. I had that in my head after the slow start.”
Canisius made only eight turnovers in 55 minutes. Niagara made only 11. Barton played all 55 minutes, and Blackman played 53. Robertson was the Canisius ironman at 47 minutes.
“We buckled down,” Baron said. “We never put our heads down. We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. We knew they’ve got scorers and we’ve got scorers. We showed a lot of tenacity.”
Now Canisius must recover in time to face Iona, a team it lost to twice during the second. The Griffs have experience with long nights. They won a three-OT game against Louisiana-Monroe in December and came back to win the next night against Nicholls State.