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Freshman point guard stands up to pressure in Canisius win

The performance of Canisius College point guard Malik Johnson jumped out at Manhattan coach Steve Masiello late in Saturday’s game.

“It’s funny, I get the stat sheet at every time out,” Masiello said. “And I look and said, he has 9, 7 and 6. Goll-ee! Really impressed.”

That would be nine points, seven rebounds and six assists for the 5-foot-10 freshman from Virginia. Then add the fact he made only one turnover against Manhattan’s aggressive perimeter defenders.

What’s more, Johnson and Kassius Robertson combined to hold point guard Zavier Turner, Manhattan’s leading scorer, to six points with one assist and five turnovers.

It all added up to Johnson’s best all-around game of the season and a 78-64 Canisius victory over the Jaspers.

The Griffs snapped a three-game losing streak and moved into a tie for fourth place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Canisius (13-9) earned a sweep of Manhattan for the first time in 20 years.

Pressure defense is Manhattan’s trademark. The Jaspers ranked in the top 20 in the nation in turnover percentage each of the previous three seasons. They’re not quite as highly ranked this season (they’re fourth in the MAAC), but they’re still a headache for opposing guards.

The Jaspers used full-court pressure for most of the game against the Griffs, and their zone defense in the halfcourt pushes out on the perimeter to try to force ball-handlers into errors.

Johnson is the first true freshman to start at point guard for Canisius since Brian Dux in 1998. He has showed uncommon poise this season.

“I thought he was great,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “He did not get sped up for the whole game. I thought that helped our team. This is a team that’s going to try to get out and take away your three-point shots. We felt like we might have some gaps to drive it because of that. And he did a very good job with that, kept our shooters in rhythm.”

Once Johnson broke past the pressure 25 feet from the basket, he got to the foul line area and made good decisions with the ball.

Canisius shot 57 percent overall and made 8 of 17 three-pointers (47 percent). Senior forward Phil Valenti scored 22 points, Robertson had 18, and junior forward Jermaine Crumpton had 16.

“Our coaches preach a lot about sitting down in the paint, coming to jump stops, already knowing where your shooters are going to be,” Johnson said. “So I think our guys on offense made my job easy. I got Phil on a couple back-cuts when I came into the paint. Shooters lifted up. So it was a team effort offensively.”

Johnson led his Richmond, Va., high school team to a 46-8 record his last two prep seasons. He also was all-region as a football star, playing running back, receiver and defensive back. He showed the speed to keep up with Manhattan’s fast fleet of guards.

Defense has been the Griffs’ weakness the past two seasons, which is why Saturday's game was encouraging.

Canisius held Manhattan (8-15) 10 points under its season average. The Jaspers’ 24 first-half points was the lowest one-half total by a Griff foe this year. Canisius stopped the Jaspers on seven of their first nine possessions.

Witherspoon on the defensive emphasis: “Our energy to start the game. Sustaining our energy after adversity, be it a missed shot or turnover. And particularly that energy on the defensive end of the floor.”

“The first thing for us is always transition defense, not giving open lanes to drive to the basket,” Witherspoon said. “The next thing is pick and roll defense. Not giving them splits.”

Johnson put an exclamation point on the win with an alley-oop pass to Kiefer Douse, who cut along the baseline for a resounding dunk to give the Griffs a 70-56 lead. The crowd of 1,602 erupted. It’s a play Douse has converted a half-dozen times this season.

“The Niagara game I messed it up and Kiefer got on me,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to say I was nervous, but I knew I had to get it to him this time. That definitely is one of my favorite plays.”

Canisius is home again at 7 p.m. Monday to play Rider.

Email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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