The Canisius Golden Griffins bounced back from a loss to Niagara, put to rest talk of their home-court disadvantage and scored one of their biggest wins of the season Tuesday night.
The Griffs went toe-to-toe with the best offensive team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in an 89-83 victory over the Iona Gaels.
The win got Canisius’ better-than-expected season back on track. Canisius moved into a tie for fourth place in the MAAC with Siena at 9-7 with four games to go in the regular season. The top five in the MAAC earn a first-round tournament bye.
“It was a great collective team effort, and the energy our guys brought off the bench was great,” said Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon. “This was a step we had to take.”
Friday’s drubbing at the hands of ninth-place Niagara prompted some soul-searching. Witherspoon revealed his players felt uncomfortable at times playing at home. The players said they were putting too much pressure on themselves before the home crowd.
Junior Jermaine Crumpton sent out a text suggesting a team meeting, which was held Sunday.
“We needed to get some stuff out on the table,” Crumpton said. “I think guys responded very well. . . . I just talked to coach and I said I felt like guys could help us.”
The Griffs, whose bench was outscored by Niagara, 31-5, had been over-reliant on the starting five of late.
“We had a long team meeting and we talked about the need for that,” Witherspoon said of more contributors. “I listened to our players and watched them practice. . . . I wanted to give everybody a chance to feel like they could make a difference, and they did.”
Sophomore point guard Chris Atkinson, who had not gotten off the bench the previous four games, played 20 minutes and produced 10 points and five assists. Graduate student Martin Dixon-Green, who had played a mere seven minutes the previous five games, produced 10 points and five rebounds in 13 minutes of action.
It was the boost the Griffs’ quality starters needed.
Canisius made 16 of 28 three-point shots, tying a season high and tying the single-game record at the Koessler Athletic Center. The Griffs entered the game ranked 33rd in the nation in threes per game at 9.2.
It wasn’t simply one of those hot-shooting nights. The Griffs moved the ball more patiently on offense than against Niagara to create open looks.
“The first thing we wanted to do is be patient, and we wanted to attack them in a way that put them in rotations and put them in help situations,” Witherspoon said. “I think it was us more being patient enough to pick our spots.”
The crowd of 946 looked at times like it was watching a Wimbledon tennis match, heads swiveling back and forth, as the teams raced up and down the court. In first five minutes of the second half, the two teams combined to score on 15 of 18 possessions.
The 5-foot-9, 160-pound Atkinson made the critical defensive play, with 2:40 left and the game tied, 83-83. He took a charge in the lane, letting himself get run over by Iona’s 6-8, 235-pound power forward, Jordan Washington.
“I thought it was awesome,” Witherspoon said. “I get fired up when a guy takes a charge because he’s sacrificing his body, putting his body on the line. . . . It was thrilling to see him take that.”
With 1:19 left, Crumpton hit a corner three-pointer to put Canisius up for good, 86-83.
On the next two Iona possessions, Kiefer Douse drew a charge, and Kassius Robertson got a steal in the lane. Free throws sealed it.
Senior forward Phil Valenti led Canisius with 18 points. Crumpton, the 6-6 junior from Niagara Falls, had 17 and was 4 of 5 on three-pointers. Douse added 16 and Robertson 11.
Iona, which made 9 of 25 three-pointers, got 15 apiece from senior guard Jon Severe and Washington.
Now the Griffs hope to keep a more collective effort going.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for players, they put so much individual pressure on themselves,” Witherspoon said. “But you don’t have to worry about yourself when you know you have teammates who have your back and who are going to play well. That’s the lesson to be learned from tonight.”
The Griffs go on the road to play at Rider Friday and at Marist Sunday.