If you read one thing in Sunday's sports section, I would highly recommend Jerry Sullivan's retrospective on the 1990s Canisius College basketball teams. They won 62 games in three seasons, appearing in two NITs (including the 1995 Final Four) and the school's lone NCAA Tournament trip since 1957. Five years on Main Street propelled coach John Beilein on to Richmond and eventually to West Virginia and Michigan, where he led the Wolverines to the 2013 national championship game.
I covered those Canisius teams along with Sully, and made numerous road trips with them. They are some of the fondest memories I have of 15 years on the Big 4 college basketball beat. The players and coaches are being honored today with a brunch on campus this morning and at halftime of the Griffs' game against Siena in the Koessler Center.
The stage for all of it was set in their 10-18 season of 1992-93, Beilein's first at the helm. It all really started in the MAAC quarterfinals, when point guard Binky Johnson's leaner with one second left produced a 64-62 upset of No. 3 Iona. Canisius went on to lose to Niagara in the semifinals but the stage was set for plenty of success the next three years.
And read Sully's prescient column here: "One day, the Griffins might look back on this as the day a bunch of young players discovered what it takes to forge a win out of dire circumstances."
Canisius went on a 16-game win streak the next season that still stands as a school record but was an upset loser to Loyola in the MAAC semifinals as a No. 1 seed. It was a disappointment but an NIT trip to Villanova was the program's first since 1985.
The 1994-95 season was one for the history books. Canisius beat teams from 10 different leagues and dumped six NCAA teams on the road (Penn, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Colgate, St. Peter's and Manhattan). The Griffs won at St. Bonaventure for the first time in 52 years and the first time ever in the Reilly Center. The win at Cincy was particularly exciting, as Canisius overcame a 20-point deficit in the second half to beat the No. 13 team in the nation in the opener of its Christmas tournament.
With a clear chance to crack the top 25 for the first time since the 1950s, the Griffs lost the title game the next night to Marshall. The Thundering Herd's coach was a young Billy Donovan, destined for big things a decade later at Florida. Another loss early that season was to ACC champion Wake Forest in the Aud, a club that featured All-America guard Randolph Childress and a lithe sophomore up front who went on to big things. His name was Tim Duncan.
The Penn win in the venerable Palestra was in the opener of the Preseason NIT but Canisius lost a chance to go to Madison Square Garden when it fell at George Washington two nights later in its first-ever appearance on ESPN. NCAA hopes again ended in a disappointing loss to St. Peter's in the MAAC semifinals but the season was resurrected in the postseason NIT. Seton Hall went down at the Aud, followed by a buzzer-beating win at Bradley on a Craig Wise tip-in. Then came one of the great games in school history, an 89-80 defeat of Washington State at the packed Aud that sent the Griffs to the Garden.
The fans stormed the court and the strains of Sinatra's "New York, New York" roared through the old barn as congo lines formed on the floor. Losses in New York to Virginia Tech and Penn State could not dull the luster of a 21-14 season.
The Griffs finally clawed to the top of the MAAC in 1996 even though Player of the Year Darrell Barley missed the conference tournament with a broken thumb. After finally getting through the semifinals with a long-awaited win over Iona, Canisius took the title with a 52-46 win over Fairfield.
The game was no Picasso but still ranks as perhaps the most significant victory in modern Canisius history. The Griffs lost their NCAA game in Dallas, 72-43, to a Utah team that would be in the national championship game two years later but just seeing "Canisius" on the courtside banner with the likes of the Utes and fellow subregional participants Kentucky, Cal and Iowa State are memories that will always last.
Here's links to plenty more stories from the archives:
---Victory at St. Bonaventure, first in Olean in 52 years, first in Reilly Center.
Sully column on MAAC title victory -- "For one shining moment, after all this time, Western New York basketball was back on top of the world."