Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon knows running a college basketball team is as much a mental battle as it is a tactical one.
His team beat the Fairfield Stags Monday night at the Koessler Athletic Center by a lopsided final score, 81-63. It wasn't always that distant though, as the teams played a back-and-forth first 20 minutes and entered the halftime break tied at 43. Canisius entered the game with six more conference wins than Fairfield, but it didn't look it on the court.
"For the first 25 minutes or so, we didn't play hard enough," Witherspoon said. "They brought the fight to us, energy-wise and effort-wise."
When it clicked for Canisius, it appeared there was nothing the Stags could do to stop the Griffs. Canisius went on a 21-4 run to break a 45-45 tie early in the second half. The Griffs kept Fairfield at least 14 points away the rest of the game.
"The energy level picked up way higher than the first half," Canisius guard Malik Johnson said. "You can feel it. I think it started on the defensive end. We got stops, rebounds, got out in transition. We executed on offense and that put a lot of pressure on Fairfield."
Witherspoon said he wants it to be easier to get the team to that peak performance.
"I'm trying to get them to a place where they play so hard that they can hardly breathe," Witherspoon said. "They're trying to get me to a place where I act like a complete maniac to get them to go to that place."
Canisius has the fourth-youngest roster in the 11-team MAAC, making tough games against teams at the bottom half of the league a good learning experience. Witherspoon's group turned on the jets before it was too late and perhaps took advantage of one of the few MAAC teams younger than they are.
"A little bit of inexperience showed up in a stretch that was too much," Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said.
While Witherspoon's comments may come off as negative after a win, his team's mental fortitude will be crucial as the Golden Griffins continue to tread in unchartered waters. The Griffs are 12-2 in the MAAC, the team's best start in program history. They're tied with Rider for the top spot in the league with four games left on their regular season slate.
There's a target on Canisius' back for the first time under Witherspoon's watch.
"What we have to understand is that when we're playing teams, they're not going to sleepwalk at an opportunity," Witherspoon said. "We have to learn what it takes, how hard we're going to have to really play."
Canisius had a pair of players record double-doubles: Jermaine Crumpton with 21 points and 10 rebounds and Malik Johnson with 15 points and a career-high 10 rebounds.
"I had to get a couple bounces my way," Johnson said. "I've got to credit the coaches. We emphasized boxing out a lot in practices. I just try to get in there and find a man."
The Golden Griffins start a three-game road stretch Friday at Monmouth.