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BETTER NIGHTS ARE AHEAD FOR CANISIUS

Mike MacDonald walked into the Canisius College locker room after Tuesday night's 70-63 loss to Saint Joseph's, looked into the dejected faces of his players and asked them a simple question.

"Does anybody feel good?" the Griffs' head coach said. "Does anybody feel good because we were close?"

The players answered him with their silence. Feel good? How can you feel good after allowing a big upset to slip through your hands? Sure, they put on a decent show before the second-largest home crowd in six years -- and with most of the students already gone for the holiday break.

They played tough against a Saint Joseph's team that had the college hoop world buzzing after winning by 27 at favored Boston College last Saturday. The Griffs rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit and led briefly at one point in the second half. They even got two standing ovations from an appreciative crowd in the newly refurbished Koessler Center.

But no, coming close wasn't good enough.

"No, it's not," said senior point guard Brian Dux. "They're from a bigger conference (the Atlantic 10), but that's all it is -- a name. People from (the MAAC) beat teams in their conference all the time."

There are no moral victories anymore. Not for Dux, who had 10 points, seven assists and only one turnover against All-America candidate Jameer Nelson. Not for Hodari Mallory, who had 22 points and six rebounds. Dux and Mallory are seniors now. This is their last go-round. They've beaten A-10 opponents. They've won six Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament games. They played in a conference title game on ESPN.

So MacDonald and his seniors see no reason for joy in playing well in defeat. They're playing to a higher standard, and it's encouraging to see. Still, there's no crime in the fans walking out of the gym with a good feeling, even after a loss.

The Griffs' performance was encouraging and highly entertaining at times. It was uneven and maddening at times, too. They played without poise in the opening moments and couldn't finish around the basket when it mattered near the end. But it was a promising effort against a team expected to be a contender in a higher-rated league.

They also did it without two starters. Junior Dewitt Doss and senior Toby Foster are both sidelined with foot injuries. Doss is out at least another month. Foster will be out longer and might be redshirted. Canisius could have used Foster's three-point shooting and Doss' slashing drives to the basket when the offense sputtered Tuesday night.

"No, no, we can't use that," MacDonald said. "We have to play. We know what we are. . . . Tonight I told them, 'We have to be better.' We have to be good in close games. In the last two or three minutes, we have to execute. We didn't do that tonight."

Canisius scored 22 points in the final 5:29 of the first half, mainly on three-pointers. But the Griffs never got their inside game going. Saint Joseph's did a good job of keeping the ball out of Dux's hands at times. He had a solid all-around game, but he wasn't able to get to the basket as often as he normally does.

Dux needs to score more this year, especially until Doss and Foster return. Other than Mallory, the Griffs don't have a reliable go-to guy. MacDonald has a more athletically gifted roster than in years past. Richard Jones will have some big games if he learns to finish his shots. Kevin Downey and Chris Ravello are capable long-range shooters.

The problem is, some of the younger players will have to assume larger responsibilities than MacDonald would like. Dux will continue to play big minutes, and he'll tire late in games. At times, they'll be lacking that experienced offensive threat you need late in close games. But the Griffs could have real possibilities if Doss and Foster were healthy.

"We're not basing the season on them coming back," Dux said. "We need to get better now. We need to win games now, day in and day out. If they come back, great. We could be really, really good. But we can be really good without them, too."
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com