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Canisius does the job in the paint to close out victory over Niagara

Canisius College had enough inside firepower to overcome a rough outside shooting performance and score a 65-60 victory over Niagara University Thursday night.

The Golden Griffins built an 18-point lead with 15 minutes left in the game. But a 3-for-20 shooting night from three-point range kept Canisius from making the game a blowout.

Niagara pulled within three points three times in the final 90 seconds before the Griffs closed out the victory. Canisius outscored Niagara in the paint, 36-24.

“This was a big win for us,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron. “On senior night, with the emotions that went on prior to the game, it was a special occasion.”

“I thought that was a great college basketball game, and I can’t say enough about the efforts of our guys,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “We had a couple moments where it looked bleak and then they just keep playing. I’m proud of them for that.”

Rematch: The two teams probably are going to meet again Thursday in Albany in the first round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Canisius stands seventh and Niagara 10th in the MAAC with one game to go in the regular season. Barring a string of upsets over the next three days, those seeds will hold and the two rivals will have a third meeting this season.

Records: Canisius improved to 13-17 overall and 8-11 in the MAAC. Niagara lost for the seventh time in the last eight games and fell to 7-23 and 5-14.

Big baby hook: Canisius got 14 points from both junior forward Phil Valenti and senior guard Malcolm McMillan.

Valenti hit the big shot of the game, a 5-foot, left-handed baby hook in the lane with a minute to go that gave the Griffs a 61-56 lead.

“I called a time out, set up a play for Phil, and he made a great, great play, just to give us enough,” said Canisius coach Jim Baron.

Valenti, averaging 14 points and 6.0 rebounds a game, hit the baby hook three times in the game.

“I definitely work on it a lot in the offseason,” he said. “And this year I feel I can step out a couple feet further out and make it, too. Definitely my range on it has gotten better. I’m kind of an undersized guy in college basketball, so I have to protect the ball so it doesn’t get blocked.”

Player of the game: Niagara’s Emile Blackman scored a game-high 27 points and willed his team back into the game with 17 of his points in the first half. Niagara scored on just one of its first 11 possessions to fall behind, 13-2. But Blackman hit two long three-pointers and made two emphatic slam dunks to get his team energized.

“My teammates kept getting me the ball and kept telling me I was playing well,” Blackman said. “It’s a big rivalry game so it’s something to get your spirits up for.”

“I think he tried to pick the pace up … and he’s able to score the all and make athletic plays,” Casey said.

Low voltage: Niagara averages 63.5 ppg, which ranks 330th out of 346 Division I teams. Purple Eagles coach Chris Casey acknowledged the simple fact that more points are needed.

“We had some opportunities at the rim we didn’t finish, and they did a good job of blocking some shots at the rim,” Casey said. “We had a couple open looks. Our hurdle is getting off that 60 number. I think our defense has been pretty good all year. I think we’ve rebounded. We’ve gotten better at handling the ball throughout the year. Our thing is we have to get off the 60 number by making some more shots, making some more free throws, finishing around the rim.”

Niagara’s leading scorer, guard Matt Scott, had just five points and made 1 of 8 shots. He’s dealing with a sore foot, although he moved around the court well. Scott is averaging 15.7 ppg.

Series: Canisius has won six of the last seven against Niagara, including a 70-61 win on Jan. 22. Niagara leads the series, 101-79. The series started in the 1905-06 season.

Up next: Canisius closes the regular season at Iona Saturday. The Griffs lost to Iona four weeks ago, 84-66. Iona stands second in the MAAC. Niagara closes Sunday at first-place Monmouth.