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Canisius, Niagara head to Albany looking for reasons to believe

Maybe it’s good that the Canisius and Niagara basketball teams are forced to play a pre-quarterfinal game in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament in Albany this week.

Both teams are looking for a jump-start, some kind of boost to get them back to playing with confidence. A win against a losing opponent might help.

Ninth-place Niagara plays eight-place Quinnipiac at 5 p.m. Thursday as the MAAC Tournament opens at Albany’s Times-Union Center. Seventh-place Canisius plays 10th-place Marist at 7 p.m. Thursday.

All Canisius had to do to finish fifth and earn a bye to the quarterfinals was win one of its last three. But the Griffs dropped all three to close at 10-10 in the MAAC.

“We’re struggling and grinding like everybody else,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “We’ve got to fight harder to do the things we’re good at so we don’t expose too many of the things we’re not good at. We’ll keep fighting that fight and see how it goes.”

Three weeks ago, Niagara was coming off a sweep of Canisius and had won four of seven MAAC games. It looked like maybe the Purple Eagles were ready to separate themselves from the bottom-feeders of the MAAC for the first time in the past four years. But no. Niagara (6-14) closed the season with five straight losses, albeit to the top five teams in the standing.

“I thought we had some very good moments in the first half of the conference season,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “I think we struggled some in the second half of the conference season. We have to work in these next couple days to regain some confidence in what we can do.”

Monmouth (18-2) is the overwhelming favorite to win the MAAC Tournament. Here’s a capsule preview:

Canisius (17-14, 10-10) vs. Marist (8-23, 5-15). Marist won two of its last three, including a 76-74 decision at Canisius on Feb. 19. Canisius blew Marist out, 91-58, on Jan. 14. The second meeting should have been a Griff win, too. Canisius forced 22 turnovers and got 10 offensive rebounds. But the Griffs allowed Marist to shoot 59.5 percent. Guard Khalid Hart leads Marist with 18 ppg. Ryan Funk, a 6-5 sophomore from Clarence, averages 12.5 and scored 21 in the win over the Griffs.

Asked if his team can recapture the form that made it a MAAC surprise earlier this season, Witherspoon said: “I think the key for us is that we all really have to be on the same page. As with most teams, and this one is glaringly similar to those teams, we have to sacrifice. Our guys have to be totally bought into the notion that we’re going to sacrifice for each other and play that way. If we do, then we can recapture that. If we don’t, then what happens is some of the deficiencies start to come out.”

Niagara (9-22, 6-14) vs. Quinnipiac (10-20, 7-13): The Bobcats beat Niagara twice, 81-78, and 89-81. They play a fast tempo and they rebound well.

“Most important with Quinnipiac is they’re very physical and aggressive around the basket,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “I think that’s going to be a very, very important part of the game.”

Casey on Niagara’s struggles of late: “I think we’ve got to defend better overall. It think we have to rebound better overall and we have to take better care of the basketball. It’s hurt us in spots. I think we also have to get some more contributions from some more guys. Some of our struggles toward the end of the year is a reflection of a need for more experience in our depth and more production from our depth.”

MAAC Women’s Tournament

No. 8 Canisius meets No. 9 Niagara for a second straight year in a pre-quarterfinal at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. The Griffs (9-20, 8-12) swept Niagara, 65-57 and 52-41. Niagara won last year’s tournament game. Canisius did a good job defending the interior in both games. Niagara’s top player is junior low-post Victoria Rampado, who led the MAAC in scoring (16.9 ppg). Canisius improved this season from ninth to fifth in points allowed and eighth to second in three-point defense.

The winner faces top-seeded Quinnipiac (17-3) at 1 p.m. Friday.

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