ALBANY – Junior guard Tiffany Corselli celebrated her 21st birthday in style for Niagara University Thursday morning.
Corselli scored 22 points to lead the Purple Eagles to a 65-64 victory over Canisius College in the first round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
The victory sent Niagara to a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded Quinnipiac at noon Friday.
The 5-foot-5 Corselli averaged 8.4 points a game in her first year as a starter this season and ranked 12th in the MAAC in three-pointers made (47). But she only shot 27.5 percent behind the arc.
Thursday she hit 6 of 10 three-pointers. It was her eighth double-figure game of the season.
“Throughout the whole week my coaches told me to work on driving and shooting, not really three pointers,” the Yonkers native said. “The first time we played them I actually had a good game. We thought they were going to deny me more on the wing. So I practiced pull-ups and going to the basket. Fortunately they left me open and I was able to knock down shots.”
Corselli’s game took a big step forward this year. She averaged just 2.1 points and 7.4 minutes as a sophomore.
“Her strength is the energy and enthusiasm she brings to this basketball team every day,” said Niagara coach Jada Pierce. “She lives in the gym. She’s always in there, and not just her shooting. Her ball-handling has come leaps and bounds from the first day we had a workout.”
Records: Niagara, the ninth seed, improved to 8-22 overall. Canisius, the eighth seed, finished 13-17.
Key three: Niagara sophomore point guard Jamie Sherburne hit the go-ahead shot with 1:15 left. It was a three-pointer from the wing off an assist from Corselli that gave Niagara a 65-62 lead. Sherburne hit go-ahead shots in the final minute of two other Niagara wins (Mount St. Mary’s and Fairfield).
“That’s big-shot Jamie,” Pierce said. “She is someone who has ice water in her veins, especially at the end of the game.”
Final misses: Canisius had two shots in the final 10 seconds to win, but Lauren D’Hont missed an open three-pointer and Crystal Porter missed a leaning 10-footer.
“On the last possession, we got the two looks we wanted,” said Canisius coach Terry Zeh. “Sometimes they go in sometimes they don’t. I thought it was a good basketball game. We don’t shoot it as well as we normally do and they shot it a little better than they normally do. That hurts.”
Depleted: For Canisius it was the seventh straight losing season and the seventh straight year it did not make the MAAC semifinals. However, the Griffs equaled last year’s MAAC record despite the fact it lost three of its four returning starters to season-ending injuries and then lost its No. 2 point guard. The Griffs played without a true point guard the last 10 games of the season.
“We’ve been dealt some tough blows through this season,” Zeh said. “What you saw is what this team has done all year, keep trying to figure out a way, keep digging. I couldn’t be more proud of how they did that.”
Top scorers: Besides Corselli’s 22, Niagara got 15 points from forward Kaylee Stroemple, 11 points and 13 rebounds from center Sam Lapszynski and 10 points from guard Taylor McKay. Canisius got 20 from freshman guard Maria Welch and 13 from Porter.
Career ending: Porter, a 5-10 senior from Houston, led Canisius in scoring (10.0), rebounding (5.6) and assists (3.8). She finished her career with 866 points and 521 rebounds.
“She’s our little, mini-Draymond Green,” Zeh said, referring to the Golden State star. “To watch her play this year was so much fun. She had over 100 assists as our power forward. She’s top five or six our league in field-goal percentage. What sometimes people don’t realize is how much hard work went into that.”
Defensive surge: Niagara held its final three regular-season foes under 60 points and closed the regular season with a 54-45 upset at Siena. Pierce said a re-evaluation of the team’s zone defensive play helped.
“We picked three things we wanted to be better with,” Pierce said. “Dribble penetration was an area where we were suffering. That was hurting us. Three-point shots were hurting us. Rebounding was hurting us. Those three things we’ve keyed on. We revamped and got some different drills to help us.”
Niagara held Canisius to 8 of 26 three-point shooting (.308). The Griffs were averaging 34 percent behind the arc.
Up next: Quinnipiac is 22-7 overall and went 17-3 in the MAAC. The Bobcats rank No. 1 in the MAAC in scoring and No. 2 in scoring defense. They have 11 players who average 15 or more minutes a game. Niagara has just six.