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Canisius stumbles to finish line, gets No. 7 MAAC seed

Remember all that momentum the Canisius basketball team had 10 days ago? Scratch that.

The Golden Griffins closed their regular season with a third straight loss Sunday afternoon, dropping a 72-65 decision to Saint Peter’s at the Koessler Athletic Center.

The Griffs finished seventh in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Instead of having a bye into the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament in Albany, Canisius will play a first-round game against 10th-seed Marist at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“Obviously, you’d like to have a bye,” said Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

The fact Canisius blew a top-five finish isn’t necessarily awful. A win would have put Canisius into a quarterfinal meeting with fourth-place Siena, which gets to play the MAAC Tournament at home. The 4-5 winner likely will play top-seeded Monmouth, which is the heavy favorite to go to the NCAA Tournament.

The path of the No. 7 seed might be advantageous – if the Griffs play well. A win on Thursday would give Canisius a rematch against second-seeded Saint Peter’s. Then third-seeded Iona would be the likely semifinal foe. Canisius beat both Saint Peter’s and Iona earlier this month.

The problem for the Griffs is they’re not playing well.

Sunday’s game opened with the Griffs falling behind, 11-0. A stunned Senior Day crowd of 1,354 saw Witherspoon bench all five starters 3:22 into the game. The backups keyed an eight-point spurt over the next four minutes and got the gym energized.

“Obviously the guys who started weren’t ready,” Witherspoon said. “I didn’t think the energy was very good. So I got ‘em all out. The guys who came off the bench got thrown in all at once very early in the game, and I think they did a great job.”

“We just weren’t ready to play at the time,” said junior forward Jermaine Crumpton. “We dug ourselves a hole. Coach made subs. The subs came in and fought back into the game. We came in and made it a game.”

The Griffs’ starters got into a flow and cut the deficit to 37-33 at the half. Canisius got within a point with 2:42 left but the Peacocks ended the game with a 13-7 run.

Despite the fact the Griffs rank sixth in the nation in assist rate, Witherspoon said ball movement is an issue.

“I think that we are constantly fighting ourselves to move the basketball,” he said. “You wouldn’t think that from a team that’s where we are in the country in assists. . . . When the ball moves, we have a better chance to score. But it’s a constant battle to get everybody to buy into that, moving the ball and moving bodies. I don’t know why. It’s a shame because when the ball moves, guys actually play better. When it doesn’t, they play worse but for some reason it’s a fight.”

Saint Peter’s, which has more tall, long-armed players on the perimeter than Canisius, limited the Griffs’ leading scorer, Kassius Robertson, to eight points and only five shots.

“I thought there were a couple of times he had good looks,” Witherspoon said. “Some of them he shot and some of them he didn’t.”

Playing against the No. 1 ranked defense in the MAAC, Canisius made just 9 of 27 three-point shots (33 percent). Canisius averaged 80 ppg most of the season but managed 65 ppg in losing its last three.
Crumpton scored 14 points but had only one rebound. Senior Phil Valenti had 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists, but he hit just 3 of 12 shots.

The Griffs stand 17-14 overall and 10-10 in the MAAC. Saint Peter’s improved to 18-12 and 14-6.

Witherspoon and his assistants were not watching the MAAC scoreboard and thinking about the possible advantages of a lower seeding. They wanted to play as well as possible and win. Now they have no choice but to make the best of it.

“Listen, there’s a lot of coaches around who would rather win the games and not get the bye because you’re sitting there waiting,” he said. “There’s coaches who would rather have the bye. Until it all works out and you know who you’re playing, you just figure out a way and take ‘em one game at a time.”

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