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Griffs need to unleash some grit

Jim Baron likes to refer to his Canisius team as a bunch of junkyard dogs, because they play a fast, frenetic style that can terrorize an opponent. But on Saturday afternoon, you could have eliminated the “junkyard” half of the designation.

The Golden Griffs played like a bunch of harmless collies in a 70-53 loss to Saint Peter’s. Playing at the Koessler Center for the last time in 15 days, they turned in one of the most unsightly performances of the four-year Baron era.

It was no secret that Canisius was a flawed team, one of the worst defensive teams in the country. But they came in as the 16th-highest scoring team in America, averaging 84.1 points a game. So at the very least, I expected to see a show.

Instead, it was a wretched MAAC affair, reminiscent of ugly Koessler contests of the past. The 53 points were a season low for the Griffs, − by 14 points. They trailed, 29-20, at halftime, having scored their fewest points in a half all year.

Perhaps, as Baron suggested, it was the mark of a tired team, one that was playing its fourth game in eight days. But Saint Peter’s was playing its third game in six days and seemed energized to atone for a dispiriting two-point loss at Niagara on Thursday night.

“It wasn’t that we lost to Niagara,” said coach John Dunne, whose Peacocks improved to 6-8, 4-1 in the MAAC. “It was the way we lost. We kind of got manhandled. So our guys had a sense of urgency and focus today, and we played like it.”

That’s an inverse synopsis of what Canisius lacked. They lacked toughness, urgency and purpose. Fatigue was no excuse. They played like a team that had been gawking at its national offensive rankings and expected things to come easy.

They’re not good enough to play that way, especially on defense. They’d have trouble shutting down a computer. Coming in, they were 338th in the nation in scoring defense (83.1 ppg) and 332nd in defensive field-goal (48.8 percent).

If you’re wondering, there are now 346 teams that play Division I college basketball.

That 48.8 percent field-goal figure jumps off the page. In the era of the three-point shot, it’s virtually unheard of for teams to allow 50 percent shooting overall for a season. The good teams generally hold opponents to the low 40s, or even high 30s, over a year.

“We’ve been a great offensive team this year,” said guard Kassius Robertson, who led the Griffs with 15 points. “But it’s kind of taken away from our defense. We’re not taking pride on defense. We’re not being tough. We’ve got to get that sense of toughness and grit instead of just being offensive-minded.”

The Griffs certainly needed some defensive grit against a Saint Peter’s team that has not been mistaken for the Golden State Warriors lately. The Peacocks are 287th in the land in shooting at 41.4 percent, but managed to shoot 51 percent on Saturday.

When you’re filling it up on offense, you can withstand that kind of defense. But the Griffs went 6:09 without a point in the first half. They went 3:34 into the second half without a point. This was the 16th-highest scoring team in the nation?

Canisius, which lacks a true post-up big man, settled too often for the three-point shot. They went 7 for 28 from behind the arc. It didn’t matter. They kept on chucking. Baron said his guys got “good looks,” which is what coaches always say when their teams fall in love with the long ball and abandon their inside game.

“We still need to work on getting the ball inside,” Baron conceded. “We got it to Phil,” Valenti “early and he made a nice layup. But once we tried to get it in again, he kind of moved outside. We’ve got to keep working to get better.”

Valenti had a rough day, scoring seven points on 3-for-12 shooting after lighting up Manhattan for 26 on Thursday. Malcolm McMillan, the team’s leading scorer, went 0-for-7 from the floor and scored a season-low four. Jermaine Crumpton scored 10, but the Niagara Falls product acted as if the defensive end didn’t exist.

The Griffs made a modest run in the second half, cutting a 49-32 deficit to seven with 5:14 left. But it’s hard to sustain a run when you’re giving up dunks, layups and open jumpers. Saint Peter’s didn’t have a single second-chance point, which tells you it was getting high-percentage looks on its first chances. The Peacocks scored a layup three consecutive times off the same inbounds play.

This makes three losses in a row for Canisius after a four-game winning streak, all away from home. The Griffs are 7-9, 2-4 in the league. Keep in mind, they were given up for dead last season before Baron rallied a team that had been picked for 10th in the MAAC to a surprising first-division finish.

But that was a tough, resilient team that played good defense, especially on the perimeter. It wasn’t a very good offensive team, but the whole was better than the individual parts. This team struggles to stop penetration and has no strong post defender – or reliable post-up scorer, for that matter.

One game doesn’t define a team. Every team will have a bad shooting night. But the Griffs have issues that go deeper than shooting. They have to shed the identity of a soft, high-scoring team that can’t dig down and win the hard way.

“It’s a process,” Baron said, “and we didn’t do it today. I’ve got to take responsibility for that, but we’ve got to work to get better.”

They need to work like dogs: Junkyard dogs, not the kind that lounge on the rug in front of the TV set with the kids.