Too bad Niagara can’t play Canisius a couple more times before the regular season ends.
The Purple Eagles played brilliant basketball against the Golden Griffins for a second time in 18 days and scored a decisive, 94-81 victory Friday in the Koessler Athletic Center.
Niagara exploited all of Canisius’ weaknesses: lack of size, lack of depth, lack of aggression on defense. The Purple Eagles held a 44-30 rebounding advantage and a 20-7 edge on second-chance points. Their bench outscored the Griffs, 31-5.
Just like the first meeting, a 91-84 Niagara win, the Purple Eagles got tons of open shots. They hit 58 percent from the field, their best percentage in their last 36 conference games. Five Purple Eagles hit double figures. Junior wing Matt Scott had 18, junior point guard Kahlil Dukes and sophomore guard Kevin Larkin each had 16, sophomore forward Marvin Prochet had 13 and sophomore guard Chris Barton had 10.
A near sell-out crowd of 2,196 was fired up, but Griffs coach Reggie Witherspoon made a surprising revelation afterward. Asked why his team rushed so many shots, he said:
“We always do that at home. Every time we play in this building we do that. To be honest with you, the players told me before we started the season that they hate playing at home. Now I guess I believe them.”
“Yeah, I didn’t believe them when they first told me but I believe them now because I see the difference at home and on the road,” Witherspoon said.
Coming off a big road win at Saint Peter's, the Griffs put more pressure on themselves in their bid to secure a top-five finish in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and get a first-round tournament bye. There are five regular season games to go. Canisius fell to 8-7 in the MAAC, still fifth, and 15-11 overall.
Niagara is ninth at 6-9 and 9-17 overall.
Canisius freshman point guard Malik Johnson had some good defensive moments for the Griffs. Other than him, every other Griff got blown by, dunked on or lost in three-point coverage. On the wing, Kiefer Douse couldn’t handle the size of Niagara’s Scott. Kassius Robertson had trouble guarding Larkin. Boxing out was problematic for Canisius big men Phil Valenti and Jermaine Crumpton.
“I think they played more aggressive for the whole game,” Witherspoon said.
“We talked about poise and staying solid and having confidence individually and collectively, and we showed that tonight,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey. “We got something from everybody. We got a good win against a very good team in a tough environment.”
Perhaps most encouraging for Niagara was the play of Larkin, a 6-5 transfer from Division II. He barely played the first 19 games. But he broke out in the first Canisius game with 16 points.
Friday he hit 6 of 10 shots, and added eight rebounds and three steals. In the last four games that he has been healthy, he has averaged 13.5 points and 4.8 rebounds. If Larkin can keep it up, he gives the Niagara attack another significant weapon.
“My confidence just went through the roof, I guess, on Jan. 23,” Larkin said, referring to the first Canisius game. “From there on I told my teammates I’m not looking back.”
Niagara was in attack mode on offense. Canisius tried quick double-teams, as many teams do, on the point guard at the top of the offense. Niagara had the Griffs chasing all over the court.
“We talked about going and making plays,” Casey said. “They pressured out. They denied wings. They denied reversal passes. When that happens, you don’t run offense. You gotta rely on making plays. You gotta attack the lane. You gotta be able to make a play by yourself. Or if the defense rotates to you, you draw two and find the next guy that’s open. That guy has to make a shot or he’s gotta drive it, attack the lane. We did that pretty well.”
Canisius got 25 points from Crumpton and 20 from Douse. Niagara did a good job denying Robertson on the wing. He had 14 but didn’t get open looks.
Niagara plays host to Iona at 2 p.m. Sunday. Canisius is off until Tuesday, when Iona visits Main Street at 7 p.m.