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Canisius comes out firing, outscores Monmouth

When Canisius fires up the BBQ that is its blazing offense, everybody eats, even those who reside at the bottom of the food chain.

True freshman Chris Atkinson hadn’t seen a lot of time for the scoring-rich Griffs. He was averaging just 11 minutes a night and shooting erratically. There was nothing on his form chart to suggest he was about to strike for a career-high 12 points – all on threes – and a career-high five assists in a 96-86 upset of Monmouth Friday night at the Koessler Athletic Center.

It’s fashionable to say that shooting is contagious, in large part because it often proves true. The Griffs caught fire right from the get-go and led, 8-0. Confidence continued to build. By the end of the half Canisius had poured 12 threes upon a team that has beaten UCLA, Notre Dame and USC. Atkinson accounted for two of the treys in a 14-2 burst that opened a 34-22 advantage.

Atkinson’s coming-out party was rife with coincidence. He originally made a verbal commitment to Monmouth, announcing it on his Twitter account. Grades became an issue. By the time he put his academic house in order Monmouth had moved on. Canisius swept in. And now, in the 5-foot-8 guard from Long Island Lutheran, it looks like the Griffs have yet another scorer in their powerful arsenal. Canisius, which entered 15th nationally at 87.5 points per game, has put up back-to-back 90-pointers for the first time since 2004-05.

Friday night’s scoresheet revealed a feast. Seven Griffs made it into double figures with Malcolm McMillan scoring a team-high 22, 1.6 under a per-game average that ranks 11th in the country. Phil Valenti added 14. Kevin Bleeker and Kassius Robertson had 11. Jamal Reynolds and Jermaine Crumpton went for 10. The surprise among it all was Atkinson’s dozen, especially coming against the high-flying Hawks on the opening night of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play.

“Everybody on our team can step up and knock down shots,” McMillan said. “Everybody on the team can get 20 or more every night.”

Even, apparently, a true freshman who entered with two treys to his name and a .250 shooting percentage from beyond the arc.

“I see it every day in practice,” McMillan said. “It wasn’t a surprise at all.”

“My team had full confidence in me,” Atkinson said. “I hit big shots and they kept giving me the ball.”

Monmouth coach King Rice knew of Atkinson’s capabilities. After all, for a time the Hawks recruited him.

“That young man is going to be a very good player here,” Rice said. “I’m happy for him. I’m happy for his family. A lot of time when your grades” are down “it takes you a little time. People don’t continue to recruit. And that young man just kept working and kept working and he’s a really good player and he’s a nicer kid. I couldn’t be more happy for him. Wish he didn’t hit them all against us.”

Landing Atkinson could prove a boon for Canisius over the long haul of the season. The MAAC is a guard-dominated league. There’s really no such thing as being overpopulated in the backcourt, not with opponents sometimes going to lineups consisting of four guards, or even five guards. Teams need backcourt players who can matchup, who can defend, who can score. Atkinson showed defensive prowess when he and McMillan limited Justin Robinson to six first-half points (the nation’s sixth-leading scorer finished with 23).

Defense may not be an afterthought at Canisius, but it’s definitely not Priority No. 1. Those who want into the offense had better produce. Canisius finished with 16 threes, one shy of the school record.

“I told our guys coming in we wanted to be aggressive, we wanted to attack,” Griffs coach Jim Baron said.

Seems like every one of them took it to heart.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com