ALBANY – Maria Welch used a deft touch around the basket and unselfish teammates to score a career-high 25 points Thursday and lead Canisius to an 80-74 overtime victory over Niagara.
The win in the first-round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament sent the Golden Griffins into a quarterfinal meeting with top-seeded Quinnipiac at 1 p.m. Friday.
Canisius, the No. 8 seed, improved to 10-20. The Griffs were 8-12 in the MAAC. Niagara, the No. 9 seed, finished 8-22 and 5-15.
Canisius outscored Niagara in the paint, 44-28, and shot 50.8 percent from the field. With Niagara’s defense focused on Griff leading scorer Sara Hinriksdottir, Canisius used its motion offense to spread the floor and find open cutters in the lane.
Welch, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Erie, Pa., averaged 7.6 points a game this season. She hit 7 of 14 shots and grabbed seven rebounds. Canisius got 20 points from senior guard Lauren D’Hont, 13 from guard Margret Halfdanardottir and 11 from Hinriksdottir.
“They were chasing Sara everywhere,” Canisius coach Terry Zeh said. “They didn’t want her to touch it. I thought she was fantastic about being patient and utilizing the way she was being guarded for Lauren and Maria to get space and score. And that’s what happened. They had so much space to score because of the way Sara was being guarded.”
Working for good shots is a Canisius strength. The Griffs rank second in the MAAC in shooting percentage (.410).
“We do not have Shaquille O’Neal, back to the basket, feed it in, score it,” Zeh said. “That’s not how we play. But we do get a ton of paint points. We get points in the paint against bigger teams all the time because of the way we can space the floor and everyone on our team can play on the perimeter. Lauren’s fantastic around the rim, her left hand, her right hand.”
Buzzer beater: Niagara sent the game into overtime, 69-69, on a three-point shot by senior guard Tiffany Corselli at the buzzer. Corselli, who averaged 7.6 ppg, scored a season-high 19 and made 5 of 8 threes. She was a Griff killer. Last season, she had 24 on Canisius in a January game and 22 in a Niagara playoff win over the Griffs.
“This week in practice we went through special situations because we thought it was going to be a close game, and I made that same shot in practice,” Corselli said. “I yelled that’s gonna happen in the MAAC tournament.”
Corselli is the only graduating starter for Niagara and one of only two seniors on the roster.
“She’s meant a lot to this program the last two years I’ve been blessed to coach her,” Niagara coach Jada Pierce said. “She’s one of the toughest competitors I’ve been around.”
Low posts: Niagara got 15 points and seven assists from junior forward Kaylee Stroemple and 15 points and eight rebounds from junior forward Victoria Rampado. She led the MAAC in scoring at 16.9 ppg.
No foul: Zeh opted not to foul when Niagara got possession with 17.7 seconds left in regulation, even though Canisius had two fouls to give before Niagara went to the free-throw line.
“We did not talk about fouling for a couple reasons,” Zeh said. “One, you always get worried about fouling in the act of shooting, which we did a little earlier in the game. The other reason with them, which was a concern for me, was if we put them at the line with Rampado and Stroemple’s size and strength. The game was a very physical basketball game. On a box out on a free throw, they’re going to push us under that rim because of their size, then that’s going to be a good chance for them to get an offensive rebound.”
Look ahead: It was Niagara’s 12th straight losing season. The roster for next season should be improved. Besides the fact the top three scorers are scheduled to return, the Purple Eagles have two promising transfers sitting out. They are 5-10 junior Paige Mosley from Clemson and 5-9 junior Diona Johnson from Davidson.
Up next: Canisius lost twice to Quinnipiac, dropping a 64-53 decision at home on Jan. 7 and a 62-49 decision on the road five days ago.