If one puts any stock in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason poll then this Canisius season has unfolded in line with expectations. The Golden Griffins, despite a senior-laden lineup, hit the halfway point of the conference schedule a meager 3-6, an unacceptable record when a team has five seniors playing prominent roles, two of them 1,000-point scorers.
What the voters were saying before the season is that they once again envisioned this Canisius team would underachieve. And the Griffs haven't been proving them wrong.
Given the circumstances, the tenure of Griffs coach Tom Parrotta had reached a crossroads of sorts with Friday night's nationally televised game against arch rival Niagara. Canisius was coming off a gritty last-seconds victory over Iona, a leap forward for a Griffs team that hasn't abounded with mental toughness. They knew outsized, undermanned Niagara would give them its best shot, as the Purple Eagles always do.
Would the Griffs continue building, or would they take a step back and concede Niagara its 14th victory in the last 16 times the two have met?
That question came to the forefront when Niagara, down as many as 13 in the first half, pulled into a 41-41 tie with 9:18 remaining. Would the Griffs respond with desperation, or would they be paralyzed by fear? Desperation won out.
Canisius smelled blood when Niagara point guard Anthony Nelson went to the bench with his fourth foul with 8:56 to go. Intensified defensive pressure forced the young Purple Eagles into a stream of turnovers. Over the next four minutes the Griffs took the game firmly in hand and won, 69-54, before a sellout crowd at the Koessler Athletic Center. And what a relief it was.
Granted, there's really no such thing as a must-win game until the MAAC Tournament rolls around. But let's be honest. A loss to Niagara would have riddled the Griffs with doubt and validated their preseason status as an after thought. A defeat would have raised questions about where this program is headed in this, Parrotta's fifth season. If the Griffs can't make inroads with five seniors then where does that leave them for next season and beyond?
"We know we've been working hard in practice and we know we have to leave it all on the floor," said senior forward Elton Frazier, who had 11 points. "We know it's going to turn around as long we keep working hard and giving all we can give on the floor."
"I think it comes back to the meeting we had with coach about seniors stepping up and leading the group," said senior guard Julius Coles, who scored nine straight Canisius points when the Griffs took control. "I mean, we've all played over 100 games."
"When we needed to step up guys stepped up and made plays," Parrotta said. "We didn't play our best game today. But I think a lot of it had to do with what Niagara was doing."
The Griffs looked like a desperate team after Nelson and freshman Marvin Jordan led Niagara all the way back to even. It was as if they sensed that this would be a devastating, far-ranging loss. After all, the Purple Eagles have won just four of 22 games, and just once in conference. Their top post player, Kashief Edwards, was playing his first game in two weeks after having arthroscopic knee surgery.
"We're in a sword fight with a butter knife," is how coach Joe Mihalich put it.
Parrotta objected to the use of the word "desperation," to describe the Griffs' situation. He said he preferred the description Coles recently used.
"I'll use the word that he used last week with me: I think they're savoring these moments," Parrotta said. "I don't think we've ever been desperate. We've waited a long time to get to the point where we were a sound team. But you do have to point out to seniors savor these moments because it goes [in a snap]."
The Griffs are 4-6 in the MAAC. There hasn't been a lot to savor. But maybe this was the start to a career-ending surge by a senior class determined, if not desperate, to shed its preseason rep.