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Jerry Sullivan: Niagara comes over the bridge, steals the show

Twenty months ago, on the day he was announced as the Canisius basketball coach, Reggie Witherspoon talked about restoring the team he had rooted for as a young boy to local hoop prominence and re-engaging it with the community.

Witherspoon hoped to make Canisius the city "franchise" again, to make the Koessler a destination, a show. He's getting there. On Wednesday, one of his old pals stopped to pick up tickets for Saturday night's game against Niagara. It was sold out.

"We probably left 3,000 or 4,000 people out who were interested in coming," Witherspoon said. I'm not sure he was joking.

Our oldest college hoop rivalry, which dates to Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, has rarely been this big a show. They hadn't both been this hot heading into a rivalry game this late in a season since entering the MAAC in 1989.

Canisius was a league-leading 7-1 and had won nine of 10. Niagara, having a turnaround year under Chris Casey, was 6-3 in the MAAC after winning six of seven. Niagara was first in the league in scoring and first in the country in made and attempted free throws. Canisius was atop the MAAC in field-goal percentage and 28th in the nation in assists.

So there was reason for the hype, and the crowd got a show. Unfortunately for Griffs fans, it was Niagara's. For the second year in a row, the Purple Eagles came over the bridge and blew the favored Griffs out of their own gym - closing the first half with a 42-16 run and easing to a 105-89 victory.

Beforehand, Witherspoon had been fearful of Niagara's talent and swift pace of play. His fears were warranted. Niagara is the most explosive team in the MAAC, and its pace and relentless scoring punch proved to be too much. Once again, the Griffs couldn't keep up.

The Griffs started four freshmen and sophomores, and they showed their age during Niagara's first-half run. They were out of sync on offense and slow to react on defense. They got outrebounded by 15, missed their last 15 shots from the floor and stirred ugly memories of brutal Griffs performances of past years.

"The game was moving too fast for us," Witherspoon said. "It was a big concern of ours. Guys aren't ready to digest action going that fast, and they exposed us."

When a good offensive team is able to play at its preferred speed, it's more able to get into a shooting rhythm. The Purple Eagles continued their torrid shooting from a year ago, when they scored 90 points in both wins over the Griffs.

Kahlil Dukes and Matt Scott, who are first and third in MAAC scoring, had 28 and 23 points, respectively, and combined to outscore Canisius in the first half, 27-25.

Dukes, a 6-foot senior, leads the MAAC in free-throw shooting, three point percentage and made threes. He thinks he's open the minute he walks into the gym. Dukes buried four threes in the first half, a couple from 25 feet. He glared at the crowd after one, smacked himself in the head after another.

"I just try to get my teammates going," said Dukes, who shot 6 for 11 from behind the arc and 8 of 8 from the line. "When I play like that, it brings a lot of energy to our group. So I tried to get my teammates going, that's all."

Niagara plays with a relentless verve and confidence. Casey said they practice at a high level and do it well, so why not let them play that way?

"We can play different ways," Casey said. "If we have to slow down, we can slow down. If we have to speed up, we can speed up. But we like to speed up and we like to go. It's always good for us when we get in a game like that. The game in the second half had to be like that, because of the lead we had."

The Griffs scored 64 points in the second half, the most they've scored in a half since 1979. It didn't matter. Every time they made a little run, Niagara had an answer. The most surprising came from James Towns, a 5-10 sophomore guard from Detroit who went off for a career-high 31 points.

Canisius crept within 10 a couple of times, but they missed numerous shots near the hoop and couldn't stop Niagara's ruthless array of scorers. Sophomore guard Isaiah Reese, the reigning MAAC player of the week, had a rough offensive night, shooting 6 for 18 from the floor and turning it over four times.

Maybe the moment was a little too big for a young Canisius team, which played without starting senior Selvedin Planincic due to an illness. Witherspoon talked like a coach who felt his guys were playing a bit over their heads at 7-1, and it surely seemed that way against a more experienced Eagles team.

Niagara hasn't let up on Canisius since Witherspoon took over the program. This makes three out of three since the start of the 2016-17 season, with the Eagles putting up 90-plus every time. Reggie wanted to slow the pace on Saturday, but Casey's guys simply wouldn't allow it.

"It's a test of maturity," said Witherspoon. "When we were ahead in the first couple of minutes, our energy level was different. When they got the lead, our energy level turned to frustration. Then we just started shooting frustration shots and now they pull away because they're scoring.

"Our energy level was just bad. It was bad."

That had to be troubling, coming before a packed home crowd. Teams generally feed off their fans' energy. But on the biggest night in the rivalry in many years, with the rest of the MAAC paying attention, the Griffs weren't ready for the moment. They let Niagara come in and steal the show.

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