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On to the semis: Canisius blanks Iona to advance in MAACs

The first 15 minutes were trending in the wrong direction for Canisius. A midfield usually so composed and technically clean was spraying passes in every direction but toward their intended targets, gifting Iona odd-man rushes and half chances.

But one moment can change the entire complexion of a match, and two in quick succession doomed Iona.

On the dribble, dynamic Canisius midfielder Melvin Blair flicked the ball over the head of a Gaels defender before veering toward the corner of the opposing 18-yard box. Surrounded by three defenders, Blair tumbled to the turf upon contact, a little too easily, according to Iona.

The referee deemed it a foul, and the exceptional set-piece combination of Bjarki Benediktsson to Alex Grattarola connected for the fifth time this season, with the looming Frenchman heading down to the turf, bouncing his shot past Juan Alcantara and just inside the side netting in the 26th minute.

That goal was enough for a 1-0 Canisius victory in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference quarterfinals on Sunday at Demske Sports Complex. It was the second consecutive season in which the Griffs won a MAAC Tournament game.

"It's one of our weapons," admitted Benediktsson, the junior transfer from Boston University in his third year with Canisius, in regard to the free kick goal. "I have a pretty good free kick and pretty good corners, and [Grattarola] is 6-foot-6, he's fast, and he's hard to defend, so I just try to pick him out in the box and he delivers."

"I know teams are very scared of playing against that," added head coach Dermot McGrane. "It's a great combo. Bjarki has got incredible service, and Alex is a handful. I thought he was getting mauled in there. Getting shoved, getting pulled, getting held - still managed to get one. I know he's mad at himself he hasn't scored one in a little while, so he was kind of desperate to get there."

With the clean sheet, red-shirt senior Marco Trivellato set the Canisius school record for career shutouts, with 12, and tied the mark for career wins, with 17.

For the MAAC semifinals, the Griffins will travel to New Jersey on Nov. 9 to face No. 2 seed Rider, an opponent they tied, 1-1, on Oct. 21. Kickoff time is still to be determined.

Melvin Blair, with the ball, drew the free kick that set up Canisius' goal. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

*APPRECIATING BJARKI: There's no center back tandem in the country that's accumulated the statistics of Grattarola and Benediktsson. They have seven goals and 12 assists between the two, which in some ways has taken the attention away from how sound they've been defensively. Benediktsson's brilliance is especially impressive considering he spent all of last year at left back.

The native of Iceland is intelligent on the field; he knows how to jump into passing lanes, anticipate tackles and distributes well with his first touch. Although not as dominant as his partner, Benediktsson isn't a slouch in the air, either. When Italian import Alessio Atzori becomes eligible next fall, it will be interesting to see if McGrane keeps the present pair together.

"We've gone through two seasons now, and I actually prefer Bjarki as a center back than a left back," McGrane admitted.

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*LOVE FOR THE FULLBACKS: When it comes to their preferred positions, Jamaican Hakeem Milson is a striker and Lucian Preis is a midfielder. But given the holes at outside back - and a serious injury to Giovanni Coraggioso and a long-term illness to Nick Szabo - Milson and Preis have become more than a serviceable pair of fullbacks.

"We had Gio get hurt early, and Hakeem has come in and done a tremendous job there," said McGrane. "We're now unbeaten in seven games. We have a little more trouble scoring; we're not scoring in spades like we were, but we're also very tough to score on, I think."

Canisius target forward Filippo Tamburini settles the ball with his chest with a Gaels' defender on his back. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

*IMPOTENT IONA: The Gaels have been reeling offensively all season after Marcos Nunez and Daniel Huertas, two non-seniors who combined for 12 goals and eight assists in 2016, did not return to the program. Although Lenworth Lopez caused the Griffs problems with his pace on a few occasions, Iona mustered just two shots overall, neither of which forced a brilliant stop.

A last-ditch tackle by Lucian Preis on Ali Dawha on the doorstep in the first half may have prevented a goal, but otherwise, James Hamilton's side did little to trouble Canisius, even as they pushed numbers forward late. Leading scorer Joshua Calderon, listed as a defender, did not play a minute.

*RIDER REMATCH: The Broncs were rightfully predicted to finish second before the season, and there's no question that Rider boasts a scary offense.

Preseason MAAC Player of the Year Jose Aguinaga (three goals, nine assists) is part of a three-pronged attack trio that includes Clement Bourret (one goal, eight assists) and Elliott Otmani (eight goals, one assist), both preseason All-MAAC selections.

Both Canisius and Rider's offenses are dynamic, and even though the match is in New Jersey, it'll be a gem to watch.

"The last time when we played Rider, I get on well with their coach, and we're into the second half and he'd come up and say, 'This is just entertaining to watch," remembered McGrane.

"And it was! It was just two good teams playing. I think a fair result that day was a tie - I thought we probably had more dangerous chances. We hit the woodwork three times, they only hit it once. We don't fear anyone in the league, so we're looking forward to it."

"Either one could have won that game, to be honest," echoed Benediktsson. "They have a really strong offense that we just need to contain like we did last time, and try to put in a goal or two."

Canisius winger Troy Brady defends on the right wing against Iona. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

*FINAL REACTION: "I think we were sloppy in the first half, just unforced errors. Most of our bad passes were their best attacks. Second half we calmed things down and did a lot better, managed the game pretty well." - Canisius head coach Dermot McGrane


Canisius: Marco Trivellato; Hakeem Milson, Bjarki Benediktsson, Alex Grattarola, Lucian Preis; Eric Strauchen, Will Pauls, Manuelle Cavazzoli, Melvin Blair, Troy Brady; Filippo Tamburini. Subs used: Hunter Walsh, Evan Walsh, Mitch Cancilla.

Iona: Juan Alcantara; Tomas Jamett, Rory Head, Humbert Ferrer, Josh Plimpton; Killian Colombie, Sebastian Gordillo, Luis Mendoza, Matias Correa, Najim Romero; Lenworth Lopez. Subs used: Ian Blugh, Ali Dawha, Joe Cusano. 


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