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Griffs overcome stubborn Dartmouth

The Canisius Golden Griffins are becoming mainstays in the Tournament.

Playing in the postseason tournament for the third straight year, the Griffs earned an 87-72 win over Dartmouth on Wednesday night in a first-round game at the Koessler Athletic Center.

The victory sets up a second-round game at Bowling Green of the Mid-American Conference at 1 p.m. Saturday. Depending on that outcome, the Griffs could play another home game, but if they don’t, they left the crowd of 806 with a season high in points Wednesday.

“For a lot of our kids, they’ve never been in this situation,” Canisius coach Jim Baron said. “I was elated that we got this invitation. We knew it was going to be a challenge for us, but our guys came out to play.”

The Griffs’ speed and athleticism was simply too much for Dartmouth to overcome. Some late issues handling full-court pressure allowed the Big Green to cut the Canisius lead to single digits with 1:03 left on a Taylor Johnson three-pointer that made it 81-72, but that was as close as it would get.

“They’re a good team,” Baron said. “We knew it was never over. That’s why we wanted to keep being aggressive.”

Junior guard Jamal Reynolds set that tone for Canisius, scoring a career-high 22 points and adding 10 rebounds. Reynolds consistently drove to the basket with impunity, hitting 5-of-7 shots from the field and going 12 of 13 from the free-throw line.

“I think my energy level was just higher than it usually is,” Reynolds said. “I always try and come out and have energy, but today there was just a lot more ‘oomph’ to my game.”

Reynolds was high man among five Canisius scorers in double figures. Sophomore guard Zach Lewis was next with 20 points, leading the Griffs’ hot shooting from three-point range by making 4-of-7 attempts from behind the arc. Canisius went 8 of 18 (44.4 percent) from three-point range, nearly surpassing their season average of 6.4 threes per game in the first half alone.

Dribble penetration set up open looks for the Canisius shooters, who were able to take advantage.

“I’ve definitely been in a slump the second half of the season,” Lewis said, “but I was able to knock them down today.”

Lewis’ fast-break layup, on which he was fouled and converted the bonus free throw, gave the Griffs their biggest lead of the game, 54-33, with 14:18 remaining. Dartmouth (14-15 overall), which was playing in its first postseason tournament game since 1959, didn’t go away, however, cutting the lead down to 10 points on a three-pointer from freshman guard Miles Wright – the Ivy League Rookie of the Year – with 12:29 left to make it 54-44.

On Canisius’ next possession, an offensive rebound and put back by sophomore forward Phil Valenti – who missed nine games with an ankle injury before returning for Canisius’ loss in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference quarterfinals – put the Griffs up, 56-44.

After Dartmouth again cut the lead to 10, Canisius senior big man Josiah Heath – who suffered a broken nose in the MAAC Tournament – hit a long jumper to make it 58-46.

Heath, who started the game wearing a plastic mask to protect his nose, but removed it in the first half, finished with 14 points and eight rebounds. Redshirt freshman Kassius Robertson finished with 13 points and Jeremiah Williams chipped in 12 for Canisius (17-14).

“I knew we could really get to the rim on them,” Reynolds said. “They’re really smart defenders, but they’re not as quick as some guys in the MAAC.”

Lewis’ third three-pointer of the first half – a desperation, off-balance prayer that was answered just before the 30-second shot clock expired – ignited a 24-7 spurt during the final 7:24 before halftime that gave the Griffs a 38-26 lead at the break.