LEWISTON – The Canisius men's basketball team made it on time to the Gallagher Center without any problem Wednesday, despite Western New York's winter storm.
Yet it took the Golden Griffins awhile - too long, in the end - to get going in their rivalry game against Niagara.
The Griffs fell behind by 17-points at halftime before waging a big rally that fell short. Niagara, which never trailed, scored a 78-70 victory in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference game.
Canisius whittled Niagara’s lead to three less than nine minutes into the second half. Then Canisius cut it to two with 1:24 left in regulation. Niagara senior Marvin Prochet hit four free throws in the final 24 seconds to secure the win.
Prochet led Niagara (11-11, 4-5 MAAC) with 23 points. Senior forward Dominic Robb added 14 points, blocked three shots and grabbed six rebounds.
Jonathan Sanks led Canisius (8-12, 5-3) with 16 points, and Jibreel Faulkner added 13.
“They made shots, and I don’t think there was anything in particular they did,” Niagara coach Chris Casey said of the Canisius rally. “I’d have to look at the film, but I recall a bunch of their baskets were in the paint. They’re long and they’re athletic, so they got to some areas of the floor and finished around the basket.”
The Griffs entered the game shooting just 31.3 percent on 3-pointers, 10th in the 11-team MAAC. Their struggles behind the arc continued. Canisius finished 7 for 22 on 3-pointers (31.8 percent).
Niagara scored six of its first 15 points off turnovers. Canisius committed nine of its 13 turnovers in the first half, as the Purple Eagles took a 42-27 lead at halftime.
“It was awful, nine in the first half,” said Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose team entered averaging 13.8 turnovers a game. “We’ve been talking about that and we’ve been stressing that, over and over and over. That’s just an area we go through battles with, ups and downs, ups and downs, ups and downs. We had four in the second half, but even some of them were completely avoidable.”
The Griffs had to regroup after Isaiah Reese was taken out of the game in the first half. Reese was averaging 12.4 points per game, second best on the team. But he was held scoreless, playing only 7:50.
Witherspoon said Reese was benched because of an “in-house issue.”
Asked if it was a disciplinary issue, Witherspoon answered, “I’ll just leave it at in-house, for now.”
Canisius got just nine points from leading scorer Takal Molson, who was averaging 16.7 a game.
Niagara converted a pair of scoring chances inside the six-minute mark to take a 31-20 lead and opened its advantage to as many as 12 in the final 2:30. Robb scored four of his eight first-half points inside the two-minute mark to help Niagara to a 42-27 lead at halftime.
“In the first half, we didn’t play as good together, we didn’t play hard enough,” said Sanks. “Niagara played way harder than we did and Coach, at halftime, he challenged us. We did better in the second half, but we shot ourselves in the foot the first half.”
Robb continued his pace by scoring four more points in the first 1:01 of the second half, including a thundering dunk that opened Niagara’s lead to 46-29.
“Any time I touch the ball, coach always tells me, ‘attack,’” Robb said. “Don’t look at the score, we know you can do it every time. Especially tonight, it just seemed like everything was working. I could go left, I could go right, I could drive, I could shoot and there was gaps. I took advantage of them.”
But the Griffs began to chip away. They cut Niagara’s lead to three points about nine minutes into the second half on a shot by Faulkner. The Purple Eagles answered with a 12-3 run and took a 65-53 lead with 8:17 left.
Then, with 2:35 left, an off-balance shot by Malik Johnson (12 points) cut Niagara’s lead to 70-67. With 1:24 left, Faulkner’s three-point play cut it to 72-70 before Robb answered with a layup 20 seconds later.
With the Griffs trailing by four with less than a minute left, Jalanni White’s attempt at a dunk for Canisius bounced off the rim, and Prochet’s free throws sealed the win for the Purple Eagles.
Niagara and Canisius meet in the rematch at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 27 at the Koessler Athletic Center.