ALBANY – Share the ball, or else.
Canisius College basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon laid down that law with stunning force Friday night in the Golden Griffins’ 61-58 loss to Saint Peter’s in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.
Witherspoon invoked the “or else” clause by benching his four most veteran starters early in the second half.
The message could not have been clearer: The coach will not tolerate what he views as selfish offensive basketball.
Seniors Phil Valenti and Kiefer Douse and juniors Kassius Robertson and Jermaine Crumpton were yanked from the game 2:46 into the second half with the Griffs down, 35-25. Freshman point guard Malik Johnson was the only starter left on the court.
The backups promptly made two turnovers and the lead grew to 40-25. Canisius called time out. Witherspoon stood in front of the four starters sitting on the bench and screamed at them for 15 seconds. It was a riot act.
After two minutes of game action, with the score 42-28, Valenti and Crumpton went back in the game. Douse sat out for 5:30. Robertson sat for an astonishing 13 minutes before finally re-entering, briefly, with 4:55 left. Robertson is a second-team all-MAAC guard who led the Griffs in scoring at 16.3 ppg and led the MAAC in three-point field goals.
Canisius played harder on defense, chipped away at the lead and pulled within 59-58 with 39 seconds left. In the last 10 seconds, the Griffs missed two three-point shots that would have tied it.
“It was a bad vibe,” Witherspoon said of his team’s play on offense the first 23 minutes of the game. “I didn’t think we were playing well together. We made some substitutions to change the vibe a little bit. We slowly got them back in. But the effort of some of the guys that came off the bench was phenomenal. I just felt we needed to change the energy in the game and give the guys who were on the bench a chance to get in the game, and get us moving the ball a little bit better.”
Isaiah Reese, a 6-foot-5 freshman from Florida, sparked Canisius’ comeback by scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
Why did Witherspoon hold Robertson out so long?
“I think that’s got more to do with No. 13 than anything else,” Witherspoon said, referring to Reese. “For him to come in and get a double-double in this situation. If a guy’s playing really well, you’re going to leave him in.”
Witherspoon’s unhappiness with the offensive teamwork has been brewing down the stretch of the season. This is a team that scored 60 points in the first 22 minutes of a big win at St. Bonaventure in December. But that same chemistry has been lacking of late.
Witherspoon was furious after a home loss to Fairfield 10 days ago. And he called his team out for selfish play – although he didn’t use that word – after the loss in the regular-season finale to Saint Peter’s just one week ago. Ironically, he benched all five starters for a brief stretch just three minutes into that game after the Griffs fell behind, 11-0.
“I think that we are constantly fighting ourselves to move the basketball,” Witherspoon said after that game. “When the ball moves we have a better chance to score. But it’s a constant battle to get everybody to buy into that moving the ball and moving bodies.”
It’s not hard to read between those lines.
Canisius clearly got an energy boost from the backups – Reese and Martin Dixon-Green in particular and Dantai St. Louis to a lesser degree. The Griffs held Saint Peter’s without a field goal for 10 minutes – from the 14-minute mark until 4:06 remained - in getting back into the game. Could the Griff offense have used a couple buckets from Robertson?
“Marty gave us great energy and gave us some physicality on the glass,” Witherspoon said. “It limited our package offensively a little bit. . . . We didn’t have as much access to some of the things we like to run with that lineup in, but I think we made up for it just by gritting and grinding and playing together.”
Robertson finished with just two points in 21 minutes. He did not take a shot when he returned for a few minutes late in the game.
“It’s rough,” Robertson said of the benching. “I don’t make the decisions on playing time. You just kind of have to roll with the punches. I got out there in the last two or three minutes. If the ball came to me I knew what I was going to do. Crump hit a big three, and his confidence was high.”
Robertson on the first 23 minutes: “We kind of struggled. We weren’t hitting shots. I don’t think the ball movement was horrible. I don’t think selfishness was a problem, either. We just weren’t really dropping the shots that we usually do. But we struggled in the first half, that was clear.”
One has to wonder about the fallout of benching the top player on the team, given the transfer culture that exists in college basketball.
Robertson is close to graduating. He might be able to transfer for his final year without sitting out a season. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine him finding any other team with an offense so well-suited to his perimeter ability and where he would get more shots and more open shots.
Canisius is 18-15. Witherspoon indicated it’s likely the Griffs will get to play in one of the “consolation” post-season tournaments that exist for mid-major teams (such as the CBI or CIT).
Nevertheless, this is a team that will be remembered for having lost its mojo late in the year. They were down six or eight in the first half of the biggest game of the year and played like they were down triple that.
“When you play like there’s something that you as an individual have to do, then the hole gets deeper and the anxiety grows,” Witherspoon said. “The ball doesn’t move. It sticks. You find yourself in places on the floor and you don’t know how you got there. It’s hard to play. That’s how we played in the first half. That’s how we started the second half. Then we got away from it and started to just dig in and try to take it a possession at a time and play together. When that happened, we started to get some results.”