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Big night from Heath spurs Griffs

Josiah Heath celebrated Senior Night in style for Canisius College on Friday.

The 6-foot-9 senior center scored 18 points in his last game at the Koessler Athletic Center to lead the Golden Griffins to a 72-65 victory over Fairfield.

The victory capped a satisfying regular season for the Golden Griffins, who were picked for 10th in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference but finished fifth. Canisius improved to 11-9 in conference and 16-13 overall.

The Golden Griffins are off for a week until a MAAC quarterfinal game against the fourth seed at 2:30 p.m. next Saturday in Albany. Manhattan and Monmouth are tied for third at 12-7 with one game to go. If they finish tied, Manhattan will be the third seed and Monmouth the fourth.

Canisius finished with a winning record in the MAAC for a third straight season. That’s the first time the Griffs have done that since joining the conference in 1989.

“This was one of the most unbelievable years for me as a coach,” said Canisius’ Jim Baron. “I told the kids no one in my opinion believed we could be in this position that we’re in but us, but that team in that room. … For all the things we’ve been through, this was an incredible year.”

Heath is one of the many Griffs who stepped up their game when injuries hit. Second-leading scorer Phil Valenti went down with an ankle injury at the end of January. Heath was averaging 7.6 points and 5.2 rebounds at the time.

In the nine games since, Heath has averaged 13.5 points and 10.6 rebounds.

Friday was Heath’s 127th game in a Canisius uniform, the most in school history. But the 230-pounder from Rochester never has been one of the leading contributors on the team until the past month.

Heath had 13 rebounds against Fairfield and made 8 of 13 shots from the field. He is a force in the low post and has developed a competent 15-foot shot, something he did not possess his first three seasons.

“I love him in the post because he has an uncanny strength for post players,” Baron said. “The other thing is he gets to the free throw line by being physical and being aggressive. He’s a perfect example of a guy that developed.”

“I’d been thinking about it all week, being my last game at the Koessler,” Heath said. “My team got me the ball in the spots I needed to produce. When a guy like Phil goes down, it’s tough on the team. When he went down guys had to step up. I started looking for my shot a little more. My team got me the ball a little more in better spots. We’ve all just been rallying together.”

The victory was far from a one-man show. Canisius got 15 points and 13 rebounds from junior forward Kevin Bleeker, 15 points and 11 rebounds from junior wingman Jamal Reynolds and 10 points from senior guard Jeremiah Williams. It was the first time since December 2004 the Griffs had three players with double-doubles.

It was a career-high in rebounds for Bleeker, the 6-foot-10 Dutchman.

“He was an animal out there tonight,” Heath said of Bleeker.

Fairfield (5-14, 7-22) was without its starting center, Amadou Sidibe, who has a knee injury. The Stags were battered on the boards by Canisius, which held a 41-24 rebounding edge. Fairfield managed to stay in the game by hitting 11 three-point shots.

“I was real proud of how our kids bounced back,” Baron said, referring to a loss to Niagara Tuesday. “How about this rebounding? We told our kids they had to rebound. To have three guys with 10 plus rebounds is great.

“We really stuck with our game plan with defending and rebounding,” Baron said.

Fairfield closes the regular season Sunday at Niagara, which stands ninth in the 11-team MAAC. But Niagara’s seeding could change depending on the outcome.