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Beilein’s Griffs savor the ride of their lives from Canisius’ MAAC win

They all cherish that one night in Albany in March 1996. But everyone who was part of that Canisius basketball team is especially fond of the long, sometimes bumpy ride that preceded it, one that led a small college in Buffalo to its first NCAA Tournament berth in 39 years.

In retrospect, athletes and coaches tend to cherish the ride most of all. More than any game or championship, they recall the highs and lows, the striving, the bonds that form within a successful, close-knit team and last a lifetime.

“I think it was the journey leading up to that night,” said John Beilein, who coached the Griffs to that ’96 MAAC title and the school’s only NCAA berth in the last 58 years.

Canisius will honor that team’s three-year run, in which they reached two NITs and an NCAA tourney, when the Griffs host Siena at 2 p.m. in the Koessler Center. Beilein and many of the players from his 1993-96 teams will be in town for the game and reunion, 20 years after the ’96 NCAA team.

Beilein, now Michigan’s head coach, was to fly to Buffalo after his team’s Saturday afternoon game at Nebraska. He was scheduled to meet with his former players Saturday night and join them for a brunch Sunday morning before the game.

The journey began, of course, when Canisius made the decision to hire Beilein as head coach in the spring of 1992. Beilein had been a consistent winner at Erie Community College and LeMoyne, but he had never been an assistant coach or worked in Division I.

Beilein, a Newfane native, was the nephew of Tom and Joe Niland, who had played at Canisius in the 1940s. Joe had been a successful coach. Dan Starr, the athletic director, was willing to take a chance on an unconventional choice.

“That took courage,” Beilein said from his office in Michigan. “Here was this Division II coach trying to make it. It was absolute survival. You don’t get a second shot when you’re a Division II guy. There were several moments in that first year that I felt, ‘Boy this is harder than I thought.’”

But Beilein had players, and he could coach. Marty Marbach had left him rising stars in Craig Wise, Michael Meeks and Binky Johnson. The young Griffs struggled in 1992-93, but you could see better times coming when they stunned No. 2 seed Iona on Johnson’s floater in the lane in the MAAC tourney.

“Go back to Binky Johnson’s shot against Iona,” said Mike MacDonald, an assistant on those teams, later a Canisius head coach and now coach at Daemen. “That’s what started it all. That got everybody believing.”

“What we did that first year propelled us into that second year,” said Meeks, a native Canadian who played pro ball overseas for 16 years and is now manager of youth player development for Canada’s national hoop program.

That belief was evident in 1993-94, when the Griffs won 16 games in a row and a MAAC regular-season title before getting upset by Loyola in the tournament semifinals. The next season, they lost in the MAAC semis again, as a No. 2 seed. Despite winning six road games against NCAA teams, they settled for another NIT bid.

“I remember coming back, the team was upset,” said Fred Dupree, a freshman on that team and now a Canisius assistant under Jim Baron. “They didn’t want to go to any NIT. Nobody wanted to be there. But all of a sudden, we won one game, then two, then it’s ‘We can go to the Garden.’ It just all came together.”

Canisius upset Washington State here to reach the Final Four of the NIT in Madison Square Garden. It was the last great basketball moment at the old Aud. “That Aud was rocking,” Meeks said. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

The run to New York City eased some of the sting of missing the NCAAs. But now Beilein had the reputation as a man who couldn’t get past the MAAC semifinals, where the Griffs had bowed out three years in a row.

Mickey Frazier, a bit player the first three seasons, met with Beilein before the ’95-96 season. Frazier was Beilein’s whipping boy. But he told Beilein he would do whatever it took to win. He planned to sit on top of the basket after Canisius won the MAAC title, the way a kid from Loyola had two years earlier.

“One of the promises I made to myself and a few close friends and my mom was that I was going up the rim if we won it all,” Frazier said from Chicago, where he’s a partner in a company that trains athletes and runs AAU teams. “To show all the hard work and dedication that had gone into it.”

Not everyone shared his optimism. Craig Wise, the MAAC player of the year, graduated. Meeks and Darrell Barley were seniors in 1995-96, but the Griffs were seen as a team in decline. But Beilein had them vying for first until a siege of injuries hit and they fell to fifth in a tight MAAC race.

The fates seemed to be conspiring against them when Barley, who had just recovered from a knee injury, broke his thumb in a practice two days before the tournament.

MacDonald, who was on the road recruiting when Barley got hurt, remembers how down everyone was when he met up with the coaches at the team hotel in Albany.

“I never went to a tournament where a whole team was so bleak,” Beilein recalled. “I remember how down John was,” MacDonald said. “I remember” assistant coach “Phil Seymore saying, ‘We’ve got to pick them up. Everybody’s down.’ ”

Ryan Collins, a backup center, said the coaches told them not to look at it as a 40-minute game. Take it minute by minute and ask yourself what you can do in that one possession to make a positive effect on the outcome.

“As a role player thrown into a spot with more minutes thrust upon me, that helped me mentally,” said Collins, who has been a teacher and coach at Frontier High for 18 years. “I wasn’t overwhelmed that I could possibly play on ESPN.”

The players took the advice to heart. But most of them didn’t need pep talks. All those hours of preparation, all those grand triumphs and crushing disappointments, had bonded them for the challenge of playing without Barley, the MAAC player of the year.

“Absolutely,” Frazier said. “We had a good feel for each other. We knew how to jell together and get things done. We had a real good chemistry developed from years before. It probably started with Binky being our captain two years before. We took that road map and went forward with it.”

Winning college teams pass down the mantle of leadership (Duke comes to mind). Those Griffs teams had strong leaders, starting at the top. Johnson passed it down to Damone James and Wise, who turned it over to Frazier and Javone “Bam” Moore.

Dupree said Beilein urged his players to be close off the court. They were always together as a group. They also drove each other on the court and in practice, where Dupree said the second team would often whip the first-teamers.

“We were like brothers,” said Meeks, who played for Canada at the 2000 Olympics and in nine different countries as a pro. “The guys I played with at Canisius are among the best I played with. I put them right up there with some of my national teammates. Coach Beilein set that tone.”

“I don’t think you get to do what we did during that stretch without having the mentality that the next guy in line would be able to step up and do their job,” said Collins. “That team was built around a lot of headstrong people.”

“When we had any pitfalls,” Frazier said, “we were able to pick each other up because we had been through so many ups and downs with each other.”

Sometimes, they picked up after themselves. Exactly two weeks before the ’96 MAAC tourney began, Frazier had called a timeout with the score tied in overtime against Loyola at the old Niagara Falls Convention Center. The problem was, they did not have any timeouts. The Griffs lost and entered the MAAC tourney on a three-game losing streak.

The quarterfinals were against Loyola. Frazier played one of the best games of his career, scoring a team-high 15 points as the Griffs advanced. They put five players in double figures that day for the first time in 45 games.

Everybody was picking it up. Moore, who had a near-perfect tournament at the point, would look over to Barley during timeouts, as if to say ‘This is for you.’ There was a “One For the Thumb” theme around the team that week.

Beilein broke his semifinal hex on Sunday as the Griffs upset top seed Iona. Kevin Thompson, a sophomore guard, had the best game of his career, nailing three three-point baskets as Canisius survived by a point to reach the Monday night ESPN final.

Frazier said they played the final against Fairfield as if they had nothing to lose. They were on an emotional high, playing with a keen sense of purpose and with coaches who had them prepared to win a grinding, half-court battle.

“We played ugly that whole weekend,” MacDonald said. “We had to. We were always in dark jerseys, which was cool. I don’t think we ever thought of ourselves as the underdog. And I think a lot of that was Mickey. He made everybody believe.”

They outlasted Fairfield in a 52-46 game that never made it to ESPN Classic. To the Griffs it was a masterpiece. Meeks was a force on both ends and was named tourney MVP. Collins was clutch in an expanded role and made the all-tourney team.

Collins fouled out in the frenzied late going. He wept in front of the team bench in front of the national TV cameras.

“I think I fouled out and there’s an overwhelming sense that you maybe, maybe, have let people down in that moment, knowing the prize you’re working toward is something you’ve been working for forever,” he said.

Collins remembers telling himself not to give in to the tears, but his mind flashed back to his freshman year, when he realized he wasn’t physically ready for Division I ball, to all those hours spent lifting weights, working out in the offseason, following the example of his older teammates.

“In that moment, I thought, ‘After three years of being so close, man, we’re not going to let this get away from us, are we?’ ”

No, they weren’t. The Griffs clamped down defensively and held on, despite shooting 34 percent. Frazier, their emotional leader, who had put them ahead for good with a three-pointer, converted a huge backup layup on a feed from Meeks to help seal it.

After the ensuing net-cutting celebration, Frazier followed through on his promise and climbed on top of one of the rims. The player who had spent much of his first three years in Beilein’s doghouse was on top of the world.

“Oh, wow,” Frazier said. “That night. I’ve got my ring out now just thinking about it. I remember going through that season, all the ups and downs, the timeout, culminating in that last game, man, how we pulled together as a team.”

Beilein left for bigger things a year later and proved what many Buffalo fans knew all along – that he was one of the best coaches in the country. He took Richmond and West Virginia on NCAA runs, then took Michigan all the way to the national title game, where they lost to Louisville, in 2013.

This is Beilein’s ninth season at Michigan, the longest he’s been at a D-I school and the same as the time he spent at LeMoyne. It’s been quite an eventful ride. Today, he’ll set foot in the Koessler Center for the first time since leaving in 1997.

“As I look back at all these years, one of my intentions is to try to connect as much as I can with the 41 different teams I’ve coached,” Beilein said. “I’m just starting to appreciate, more and more, the journey and ... ”

He paused over the phone.

“I believe this will be pretty emotional. I’ll see how it is.”