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Mining MAAC memories

ALBANY – I’ve been covering the MAAC basketball tournament for 22 years. Back in the day, Mike Harrington and I had one main goal: Just get us to Monday night, so we can cover one of our two teams in a nationally televised championship game on ESPN.

There was actually a time when getting to Monday was commonplace. Between 1993 (my first year covering the tourney) and 2009, Canisius or Niagara made it to nine title games in 17 years, a shade over half the time.

But since Niagara’s loss to Siena in the ’09 final, our men’s teams haven’t returned to the Monday stage. That five-year drought without an appearance in the title game is the longest since Canisius and Niagara moved into the MAAC in the 1989-90 season.

The women have made just one championship game appearance (Canisius in ’09) since the Griffs won it all in Buffalo 10 years ago.

So there haven’t been a lot of fond memories in recent years. It would be nice if the Canisius men or Niagara women could make a run over the next few days. I’m not counting on it. It would be a major stunner if either of them made it to the Monday title games.

For now, old memories will have to suffice. Here’s a list of my 10 most memorable moments from more than two decades at the MACC tourney:

1. On Top of the World: Canisius, which had fallen short with better teams the previous two years, broke through for the 1996 title under John Beilein at what was then Knickerbocker Arena in Albany. The Griffs advanced to the NCAAs for the first time in 38 years.

Playing without injured MAAC Player of the Year Darrell Barley, the Griffs gutted out three wins and beat Fairfield in the final, 52-46.

Micheal Meeks was MVP on a bruised knee, though I voted for point guard “Bam” Moore. I can still see Mickey Frazier sitting on top of the basket during the victory celebration with the net around his neck.

2. “For you, Mom”: Exactly 10 years ago Saturday, Niagara won its first league title under Joe Mihalich, an 81-59 rout of Rider at HSBC Arena in Buffalo in ’05. It was another case of a team breaking through after repeated disappointment. Niagara had lost the MAAC title game in 2002 and ’04.

Mihalich cut the final strand of the net as Niagara fans chanted “Thank you, Joe.” He turned to his ill mother, Dolores, in the lower stands and said, “For you.” Seniors Juan Mendez, Alvin Cruz and David Brooks led the way for Niagara, which won its first NCAA berth in 35 years.

3. Put up your Dux: In the 2002 quarterfinals in Albany, Hodari Mallory banked in a shot in overtime to give Canisius an 85-84 upset over No. 1 seed Rider. I remember it as the day Brian Dux put on one of the most clutch shooting performances in tourney history, scoring the Griffs’ final 13 points of regulation to get them to OT.

The win put Canisius into the semifinals against Niagara. Mike MacDonald, whose Canisius roster was full of local kids, joked that they should have moved the semi to Buffalo.

4. Tyrone Power: Freshman Tyrone Lewis was MVP as Niagara beat Siena, 83-70, for the 2007 title in Bridgeport, Conn. The Eagles became the first Western New York team to reach the NCAAs twice in three years since St. Bonaventure with Bob Lanier in 1968 and ’70.

Mihalich’s team persevered after six players served suspensions from an on-campus brawl that rocked Niagara during the university’s sesquicentennial. Lewis, an under-recruited 5-10 guard from Philadelphia, had 24 points and five steals in the final.

5. One for the Women: Canisius knocked off No. 1 seed Marist, 60-59, at HSBC Arena in Buffalo in Terry Zeh’s first season as coach in 2005. The Griffs became our first Division I women’s team ever to reach the NCAAs.

Becky Zak, who had missed a last-second shot that could have tied the title game a year before, made several big plays and hit the two free throws that clinched the game for Canisius. Marist has won nine straight MAAC women’s titles since.

6. One for the Ages: In a gripping semifinal between fierce rivals, Bobby Gonzalez’s Manhattan team beat Niagara in double overtime, 82-81, in 2003.

The Jaspers’ Luis Flores had 30 points and the Eagles’ Juan Mendez 31 in a matchup of two of the best scorers in league history. In the flush of the moment, I couldn’t resist the cliche: It was too bad someone had to lose.

7. Beilein’s legend begins: Canisius stunned second seed Iona, 64-62, in the quarterfinals in 1993. It was the first of many memorable postseason moments in Beilein’s glorious career. The Griffs had three freshmen in the starting lineup. They lost to Niagara in the semis, but expectations began to soar for the Griffs that day in Albany.

8. Shoot the Lights Out: Niagara sophomore guard Daryl Greene put on an amazing long-range shooting show against Siena in the 2000 semifinals, scoring 20 points in the first half. Late in the first half, the lights went out in the arena. We joked that Greene had shot them out. Greene scored 33 points, but cooled off late and Siena escaped, 90-88.

9. Take it to the Bank: Another double-OT classic, but this time Niagara prevailed over Rider in 2009, moving on to the final in Albany.

Tyrone Lewis, who was 2 of 18 to that point, banked in a 25-footer with 1.7 seconds left in regulation to force the OT. Siena won on Monday night, spurring some justifiable complaints about its home edge here.

10. Twenty Minutes to Tucson?: Jack Armstrong’s best Niagara team had a 10-point halftime lead over Manhattan in the title game in 1993. At halftime, Harrington uttered the fateful words, “Twenty Minutes to Tucson” (one of the NCAA sites). The Eagles blew the lead and lost, 68-67. Armstrong never got to another final. He’s now the voice of hoops in Toronto.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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