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Canisius, Niagara basketball stars put on a show

It was one of those rare electric nights in local college basketball – when Main Street is the place to be, when parking places are hard to come by and the old-timers think back fondly to the old Aud.

The Koessler Center was jammed Wednesday, with the students out in full force for the 173rd installment of the Griffs’ rivalry against Niagara.

They say you throw out the record books when these two meet, but I’m sure a lot of fans consulted the national scoring leaders.

After all, this one featured the country’s No. 1 (Antoine Mason) and No. 3 (Billy Baron) scorers. How often do we see that? I’m guessing never, not even in the days of Calvin Murphy and Bob Lanier.

So for one night, our college hoop rivalry resonated nationally. And considering the skills of the two star players, and the offensive personalities of the two squads, a large, enthusiastic crowd was looking forward to a real show.

They got one, too, though it wasn’t nearly as competitive as we’ve come to expect from the rivalry. It was billed as a match of two top individuals. But the Griffs left no doubt who was the better team, leading from the opening tip of an 87-74 triumph.

Baron and Mason didn’t disappoint. Baron, mixing long jumpers with drives, finished with 31 points. Mason, defiant in defeat, threw in 29 and kept the Purple Eagles in the game. Baron shot 10 for 17 from the field, 4 of 8 from three; Mason was 11 for 19, 4 of 7 from long range.

So the stars battled to a standstill. They even banged heads early in the second half, bloodying Baron’s jersey and forcing the 6-foot-2 senior to retreat to the locker room for a spare. Baron ditched his No. 12 jersey and came back with a No. 3, and was no worse for the wear.

Baron and Mason elevated their games after the collision.

Things got a bit chippy. In one dazzling stretch, Mason hit a long three-pointer – staring in his defender’s face afterward – then dunked in transition, bringing the Eagles to within 11, 66-55.

At that point, it seemed as if Niagara might make a run and turn it into a classic. But Canisius dug in and quickly regained control. The Griffs, seventh in the nation in three-point shooting, got a couple of threes from Baron.

But it wasn’t all about Baron, or long-range shooting. Canisius played a smart offensive game, proving how good they can be when Baron is on and his teammates are supporting him, attacking the rim to set up their long-range game.

“Yeah,” said coach Jim Baron. “We really made a conscious effort to do that so we could get to the free-throw line. I looked at guys like” Chris Manhertz and Jordan Heath, “they’re allowed to be physical inside. That’s the game of basketball. You’re allowed to use your body, to be aggressive.”

Baron has been harping on that since he got here two years ago. Heath is 6-10, but plays soft at times. Manhertz plays with ferocity, but he’s only 6-6. He has been erratic this year, but had his best game of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds.

The Griffs will need Heath and Manhertz to play that way to win the MAAC. It’s not about the show. Oh, it’s nice to have a bunch of shooters and play entertaining, high-scoring games. I can remember the dull old days, when scoring 60 points was an achievement at Koessler.

But there’s one clear objective for a Griffs team laden with seniors – succeeding in the postseason. Remember, we’re talking about a program that hasn’t reached the conference semifinals of its league tournament in 12 years.

Rest assured, Billy Baron isn’t dreaming of making the MAAC semifinals.

On New Year’s Day, he tweeted out his one driving goal: “All I want for 2014,” he said, “is to make the NCAA Tournament.”

Baron is one of four senior starters. This is their last shot. Jim Baron reminds us it’s only his second year with this group, but he’s trying to manage expectations. When you have a likely conference player of the year (his son) and a veteran squad, you shoot high.

You also want to shoot closer to the hoop. The Griffs are known for their three-pointers, but it’s hard to win a conference tournament from the outside. You need to have big men who command attention down low, get to the foul line, and have a strong defensive presence at the other end.

The Griffs were assertive Wednesday. Chris Perez, the Griffs’ 6-3 Dominican transfer, was especially aggressive. Perez went to the basket all night long. Late in the game, with Niagara making its modest run, Perez scored three times on drives.

Of course, we’re talking about a Niagara team that was 342nd in the country in scoring defense – third from the bottom. You could see why the Eagles are ranked that low. The Griffs will need to play that way against the top MAAC teams to make the NCAAs.

They showed the blueprint on Wednesday. Billy Baron was sensational from the outside. The Griffs shot 60 percent from two-point range. They got to the foul line. They played tough defense at the rim.

Anyone who reads the national stats knows they have a great player.

We’ll know in about six weeks if they’re destined to be a great MAAC team.