After Canisius overcame a sluggish start to beat Quinnipiac on Saturday afternoon, 71-64, coach Reggie Witherspoon was asked for some perspective on his Griffs making history, reaching their best-ever record in MAAC play – 11-2 – despite limited expectations for this season, which included being picked ninth in the league’s preseason coaches poll.
Witherspoon’s brain quickly produced a memory that applied. It wasn’t a lesson from his year-and-a-half at Canisius, his stints at Alabama and Chattanooga, or even his 14 years at the University at Buffalo. The memory predated even his time coaching at Erie Community College or Sweet Home High School.
Witherspoon thought back to 1969. He was 8 years old when his family moved to Amherst. He and his three brothers waited anxiously to watch the one basketball game that was on TV each week, broadcast in black-and-white. It was during those times that his father, Moses, would utter a life lesson that Witherspoon still holds dear.
“We’d be watching games – and I’m the youngest of four boys – and there would always, inevitably, be somebody in the other room from the TV, and he’d say, ‘What’s the score?’” Witherspoon recalled. “And someone would say the score, and the next question was obviously, ‘Who’s winning?’ And then he would say, ‘Wait a minute, no. You can’t be winning. You can be ahead, but you can’t be winning. You either won at the end of the game or you lost, but you’re not winning. You’re either ahead or you’re behind, but you can’t be winning and you can’t be losing.’
“So,” Witherspoon concluded, “after 13 games, we could be slightly ahead of some teams, but we have to get ready for the next one now.”
That’s it. Forget that Witherspoon’s Griffs surpassed the 9-2 conference mark set by John Beilein’s 1997 team, and the 10-2 mark reached by Jim Baron in 2014 during his son Billy’s senior year.
“To me, honestly, (being 11-2) says we’re 13 games in, and we have to get ready for the next game,” Witherspoon said. “We can’t get into a situation where we think where we are dictates what we have to do next.”
Canisius has five games remaining in the regular season, with the next one coming Monday against Fairfield. The Griffs can clinch first place in the conference by winning out, which would guarantee them at least a berth in the NIT. They haven’t played in that event since 1995 and haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996.
Jermaine Crumpton led the team Saturday with 14 points, which moved him past Hank Nowak into eighth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,460 points (though Nowak, a member of Canisius’ NCAA teams of the 1950s, reached the mark in 36 fewer games). Isaiah Reese scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had seven assists while Malik Johnson added 10 points as the Griffs gained separation in the second half, dropping the Bobcats to 9-17 and 6-8 in the conference.
Canisius also clinched a first-round bye in the conference tournament with the win, but that’s not anything Witherspoon would care to celebrate.
“I wish my dad was here to tell it,” he said later, as his brother Greg walked over. “In those days, you didn’t have 200 channels. You didn’t have five games a day. You might have a game a week; if you’re lucky, two games. So you best believe, if you weren’t in the room while the game was on, you wanted to know what’s going on, what the score is. Eventually it’s going to happen, somebody’s going to say ‘who’s winning.’ And he’s going to say, ‘you’re ahead or you’re behind.’
“It wasn’t that he played a lot of sports or watched a lot of sports; it was just a perspective, you know, on, ‘You have to finish what you’re doing.’”