LEWISTON – Maybe it’s time to take the Niagara Purple Eagles a little more seriously in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Niagara dominated Canisius for most of the way Monday night and scored a 91-84 victory over its arch rival at the Gallagher Center.
The win came on the heels of Niagara’s upset Saturday of St. Peter’s, the second-place team in the MAAC. The Purple Eagles, 5-15 in the MAAC last year, improved to 4-6 at the halfway point of the conference schedule.
This was a game Niagara would not have won last year. The Purple Eagles had the lowest-scoring offense in the MAAC, averaging 62.7 ppg. Canisius is the highest-scoring team in the MAAC this season.
But the Purple Eagles went toe-to-toe with the Griffs’ pace right from the start, racing the ball downcourt in transition and attacking the basket.
“I did not let them go last year,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said. “We just didn’t have the people to do that. This year we do. We have multiple guys who can make threes. We have multiple guys who can handle and pass the ball. We have multiple guys who can score the ball. So we’ve always stressed getting up and down the floor.”
Niagara (7-14) pushed its MAAC scoring average to 75.4 ppg.
Don’t be fooled by the final score. This was a spanking. A crowd of 1,895 saw Niagara lead 13-2, 51-34 and 84-66, with 5:30 to go. A bunch of sloppy turnovers late let Canisius get closer.
It’s a reality check for Canisius, which lost its third straight and fell to 5-5 in the MAAC and 12-9 overall.
The Griffs rank last in the MAAC in field-goal percentage defense, allowing foes to make 48.5 percent. The Griffs are 313th in the nation (out of 351) in defending two-point shots, allowing 54 percent.
Canisius’ small lineup is wonderful on offense, but it’s vulnerable around the basket. Canisius made it too easy for Niagara early, allowing 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Marvin Prochet to have his way inside. He scored 15 of his 19 points in the first half.
What did Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon think about his team’s defensive intensity?
“Terrible,” he said. “I think our offensive intensity was terrible in the first half, too.”
The challenge for the Griffs will be to hang in games on nights when the offense isn’t flowing, when they “only” score 34 in a half.
“The question posed to them was can we win one of those low-scoring, grind-it-out games?” Witherspoon said. “They haven’t answered that question. That’s the issue.”
The unselfish Prochet, averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, is developing into a blue-collar asset for Niagara.
“He scored the ball but he’s done much more than that for us the entire year in terms of defense, rebounding, leadership,” Casey said. “He can guard multiple guys.”
The other stars for Niagara included: junior point guard Khalil Dukes, who had 17 points, nine assists and one turnover; junior wing Matt Scott, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds; and sophomore guard Chris Barton, who made it tough for Canisius scorer Kassius Robertson to get shots.
Then there was Niagara junior Kevin Larkin, a transfer from Division II who sat out last year. He came off the bench early and scored 16 points in 13 minutes on 5 of 6 shooting, including three three-pointers.
Larkin not played more than six minutes in any game since Dec. 10 and had scored only 17 total points the first 20 games.
Was Casey saving him as a secret weapon for the arch-rival game?
“That’s exactly what I did,” Casey dead-panned.
Actually, Niagara was expecting good things this season from Larkin, who was the leading D-2 freshman scorer in the nation at Cheyney (Pa.) two years ago. But he has had a big adjustment to learn to play within the structure of the offense after sitting out a year.
“Maybe I was a little rusty starting off the season,” Larkin said. “But I still feel it’s easier to play here than at the D2 level just because of the coaches I have. . . . I would just say I’m being coached more. All my career at other places I wasn’t really told what to do. I didn’t follow a structure. I just went out there and did what I did. This situation is better for me.”
Can Larkin become a consistent spark off the bench?
For a night, anyway, Niagara fans could dream about the possibilities.