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Golden Griffins try to keep it going against Niagara

Canisius College’s Kevin Bleeker started six games as a freshman back in the 2011-2012 basketball season. Little did he know, he would have to wait three years and 95 games before returning to the starting lineup.

Bleeker is making the most of his long-awaited opportunity. The 6-foot-10 junior center was pressed into the lineup four games ago due to injuries to Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton.

He has responded with quality play, helping the Griffs win three straight games and clinch at least fifth place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference with two games to go in the regular season. The Griffs, winners of three straight, will try to stay on a roll Tuesday night when they play host to Niagara University at 8 p.m. at the Koessler Athletic Center (Radio 1230 AM, ESPN3).

The Griffs were left for dead when they lost Valenti and Crumpton, their second- and fourth-leading scorers. Bleeker averaged 13 minutes and 3.0 points a game the first 23 games of the season.

Over the last four, he has averaged 30 minutes, 9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and shot 52 percent from the field.

“I’m not at all surprised,” said Griffs coach Jim Baron, “because he works hard in practice every day. He has a great work ethic, he’s very focused, and he’s very mature.”

“At first it was, ‘Oh wow, it’s a huge blow,’ ” Bleeker said of the injuries. “But coach told us nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. He said, ‘Next man up, keep playing as hard as you can.’ That’s what we’re doing.”

Bleeker was recruited by former Griffs coach Tom Parrotta out of Alkmaar, The Netherlands, a city of 95,000 known for its cheese markets. Parrotta scouted Bleeker while watching former Griffs guard Frank Turner play professionally in Holland.

“There’s a guy I know back home who knows a lot of coaches, and he knew coach Parrotta well, so they got in contact,” Bleeker said.

Bleeker picked Canisius over Tulsa and Cal-Irvine.

“I came here because I liked the small community where everybody knows everybody, and I liked the coaching staff,” Bleeker said.

Parrotta was fired after Bleeker’s freshman year. Because the Griffs had four older big men on the roster, Baron asked Bleeker to red-shirt the 2012-13 season. It was a good decision, because it allowed Bleeker to get stronger.

Bleeker was backing up 6-9 senior Josiah Heath until the injuries hit.

Now Canisius essentially is playing with three guards and two centers. Bleeker is in Valenti’s No. 4, or power forward, spot. Like Valenti, Bleeker can catch and pass pretty well, which makes him dangerous in the high post.

“For me, I’m a 4 now, and the 4s we play against are like 6-6 or 6-7,” Bleeker said. “So for me, it’s an opportunity to go play inside more, because their big guy is on Josiah. So I’m guarded by a smaller guy usually. I have more opportunities inside.”

“We’re up tempo, and we like our bigs to be multiple, and he does that,” Baron said. “He can put it on the floor, shoot it, he’s smart he sets good screens. Plus he’s 6-10.”

Valenti was averaging 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds. Opposing coaches don’t see much difference in the way Canisius’ unselfish offense is running.

“Even though he’s a 5 man, you can count him as a stretch 5,” said St. Peter’s coach John Dunne. “They still have four guys they can put out on the perimeter. They just don’t have the guy who can go off the bounce from the 4 spot anymore. At some point that’ll hurt them a little bit. But they execute really well. They really shared the ball well against us.”

Bleeker’s parents visit from The Netherlands every December. He goes back home for a month or so after each spring semester. His favorite cheese is Gouda. Beside his family, what does he miss most about his homeland?

“I think the Dutch food,” he said. “It’s healthier, there’s more vegetables. There’s a lot more fried food here.”

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The University at Buffalo aims to keep alive its hopes of a top-four finish in the Mid-American Conference on Tuesday when it plays host to Akron (Radio 1520 AM, ESPN3) at Alumni Arena.

UB and Akron are tied for fifth in the MAC at 8-6 with four games to go. Akron won the first meeting. However, Akron has lost three straight and announced Monday that starting point guard Noah Robotham is out for the season with a torn knee ligament. Robotham was a top candidate for MAC Freshman of the Year. He was averaging 30.6 minutes and 9.9 points a game. Another freshman, Antino Jackson, will take his spot. Akron never has lost four straight in the 11-year tenure of coach Keith Dambrot.

In the lone Big 4 women’s game Tuesday, Niagara visits Canisius at 5 p.m. Niagara (9-9) is tied with Siena for fifth place in the MAAC. The top five get a first-round tournament bye. Canisius (7-11) is tied with Monmouth for eighth. Canisius beat Niagara, 66-55, last month.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com