ALBANY – Senior forward Phil Valenti scored 23 points, and Canisius survived some shaky defense to get a win in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament Thursday night.
The Golden Griffins scored a 77-73, first-round victory over Marist College to advance to a quarterfinal matchup with St. Peter’s at 9:30 p.m. Friday.
The seventh-seeded Griffs improved to 18-14. Marist, the No. 10 seed, finished 8-24.
The Griffs were clutch down the stretch, outscoring Marist, 9-4, in the final three minutes to avoid an upset loss.
Junior guard Kassius Robertson hit a corner three with 2:05 left to put the Griffs ahead for good, 72-69. Then Valenti scored on two straight possessions, cutting across the lane, catching nifty passes from point guard Malik Johnson, and converting inside 5 feet.
“Coach calls the play at the right time after seeing the defense the whole game, and then it just comes down to execution,” Valenti said. “Malik did a good job of finding me. Other guys did a good job of setting their guys up.”
The Canisius fans in the crowd of 500 at Times Union Arena let out a sigh of relief when Robertson played good defense to force a Marist three-point miss with 21 seconds left.
It wasn’t easy. Canisius went six straight minutes in the second half without getting one defensive stop, letting an eight-point lead slip away.
Marist guards Brian Parker and Khallid Hart scored 22 and 16 points, respectively. Canisius could not stop them from either driving to the rim or posting up down low.
“Oh man, they just backed you down like post players,” said Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon. “And they know how to hit you, how to nudge you back. They’re good.”
When Parker scored a layup on Griff Kiefer Douse with 6:15 left, it put the Red Foxes up, 67-65. Marist had scored on 14 of 16 possessions.
That was the bad news. The glimmer of good news was Canisius’ offense never stopped scoring, And the Griffs were keeping Marist from hitting three-pointers, something they feared greatly. Canisius was burned down the stretch of a regular-season loss at Marist by sharp-shooter Ryan Funk, a sophomore from Clarence.
The Red Foxes hit just 3 of 22 shots from behind the arc. In pushing out to defend the perimeter, the Griffs left themselves vulnerable inside. Marist made 24 of 33 two-point shots.
“Not only is it a good thing our offense was going well, but it’s a good thing on most of those nine possessions they weren’t threes,” Witherspoon said. “Funk got hot on us the second game there. We said we had to take away his easy shots.”
The focus on the perimeter defense probably didn’t help the Canisius rebounding, either. Marist ranked last in the MAAC and 342nd in the nation in rebounding margin this season. But the Red Foxes out-boarded the Griffs, 35-31.
Junior forward Jermaine Crumpton stopped Canisius’ defensive bleeding. With the game tied 67-67, Crumpton drew his third charging foul of the second half. Then he blocked a Parker shot in the lane.
“Throughout the year, that’s my way of protecting the paint because I’m undersized,” the 6-6 Crumpton said. “I took a lot of charges in the regular season. I continued to do that. I just gotta be strong down there and just stand my ground.”
Valenti made 8 of 13 field goal attempts, 7 of 8 free throws, had seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“You’re talking about persevering, and he did a terrific job of that,” Witherspoon said. “He played heavy, heavy minutes in the second half and was great at the free-throw line. That’s one thing people don’t talk about much. He finished very, very well around the basket in the second half.”
Canisius got 17 points from Douse, 12 from Robertson and 10 from Crumpton.