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Canisius finally runs out of gas in MAAC loss

ALBANY – Canisius College’s underdog run through the last month of the basketball season finally succumbed to injuries, a lack of depth and a shortage of offense Saturday.

The Golden Griffins lost to Monmouth University, 60-54, in the quarterfinal round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

Monmouth exploited the fact Canisius essentially was playing without a “Four Man,” the power forward position.

Since losing big forwards Phil Valenti and Jeremiah Crumpton to injuries in early February, the Griffs were able to win four of their last five regular-season games with a two-center offense, using 6-foot-9 Josiah Heath and 6-10 Kevin Bleeker in the post positions.

Monmouth didn’t try to match big with big most of the game. The Hawks gave Canisius fits on the defensive end by using three big guards who can shoot – 6-7 Andrew Nicholas, 6-6 Deon Jones and 6-6 Colin Stewart. They scored 11, 10 and 10 points, respectively.

Canisius had to play 6-5 wingman Jamal Reynolds more than Bleeker, because it needed Reynolds’ defensive range. But Canisius’ offense ran better with the two-center lineup on the floor. Reynolds is more of a defensive specialist.

The Griffs scored only 18 points in the paint. They had been averaging 28 a game with their two-center offense.

“They went with four guards, so now you have to make adjustments with getting your bigs to play their guards,” Baron said. “They can take it off the dribble. … They put Nicholas and then they put Collin Stewart at the Three and the Four, and that caught us for a little bit of a loop.”

Canisius knew the four-guard lineup was coming, because Monmouth did it during stretches of their two narrow regular-season wins over the Griffs.

The Griffs tried to counter with the return of Valenti, who had missed the previous nine games after suffering a dislocated ankle. The 6-7 sophomore was valiant. But he was limited in 14 minutes of action, scoring three points. He was averaging 11 before his injury.

“He’s kind of been maybe 60 percent,” Baron said. “But I give him a lot of credit for making the effort to come back for the conference tournament. That takes a lot of determination and desire.”

Canisius’ offense ranked seventh in conference games in scoring, sixth in field-goal shooting and 10th in three-point shooting. It got by with superb ball movement. The Griffs ranked 22nd in the nation in assist-to-field goal rate.

Canisius got 18 points from senior point guard Jeremiah Williams and 10 from freshman shooting guard Kassius Robertson. Nobody else hit double figures. Monmouth’s bench outscored Canisius’ bench, 25-13.

Canisius made six turnovers during a 13-0 Monmouth run that gave the Hawks a 47-39 lead.

“What happened was we made a couple of substitutions because we got into foul trouble,” Baron said. “So we were trying to thin out the line a little bit, and we had guys coming in off the bench that we thought would be stronger … and we felt short.”

Canisius pulled within 54-51 with two minutes left but came up empty on three chances to tie. Robertson missed an open three from the wing with 1:21 left. Williams made a turnover against a well-timed Monmouth half-court trap with 1:04 remaining. Reynolds missed a 4-footer that he had to alter because of good defense with 40 seconds left. Monmouth made its free throws after that.

Canisius fell to 16-14. Monmouth (18-14) advanced to a meeting with Iona Sunday. Canisius might get a shot at extending its season if it gets a bid in the Tournament.

Given the fact Canisius was picked for 10th in the MAAC, Baron said it was one of the most satisfying seasons in his 28-year coaching career.

“We grew, we learned, we developed, we never put our heads down and we kept looking forward,” he said. “I can’t be more proud of these guys.”

Baron also expressed pride over the fact Canisius has won 57 games in his three seasons. It had 11 straight non-winning seasons before he arrived.

“That’s the beauty of coming here and developing these student-athletes and getting everything back on track,” Baron said. “Not only basketball but the culture of being a student athlete, the culture of being part of the community, the culture of giving out tickets so we can get the student body to get to the game, a culture of going to the dining hall, going to Subway, going to Tim Hortons and giving out tickets.”

“How many 28-year head coaches are gonna be a Fuller Brush man, selling the program in the dining hall? But I love doing it. I gotta show the community that I’m not afraid to hustle. I’m not afraid to let them know that we’re in this together.”