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First-place Canisius winning tight games, embracing 'road warrior' mentality

Isaiah Reese hasn’t sniffed the court since an indefinite suspension for conduct detrimental to the team on Feb. 1, and it’s unclear whether the star guard will rejoin his Canisius teammates at any point during the final stretch of the regular season or the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament.

But the Golden Griffs are making a late push without him.

Canisius (12-14, 9-5 MAAC) has won four of six games despite the absence of one of its best players, enough to claim sole possession of first place in the conference with four games remaining in the regular season. The Griffs are a half-game ahead of five other teams — Quinnipiac, Rider, Siena, Iona and Monmouth, all tied for second place with 9-6 conference records — and will face three of them by the end of next week.

Canisius enters this critical stretch with visits to Monmouth on Friday and Iona on Sunday before closing the regular season with home games against Niagara on Wednesday and Siena on March 1.

The Griffs know they need everyone to rise to the occasion.

“When you lose a player of Isaiah Reese’s caliber, you’re not going to replace him with just one guy. It’s going to have to be a team effort,” junior guard Malik Johnson said after the Griffs rallied for their most recent victory, a 72-68 home triumph against Fairfield on Friday. “And I think we’re doing a good job right now of playing together, and a lot of guys are stepping up.”

Canisius has a 7-3 record in its last 10 games and has displayed an uncanny ability to win the close ones.

The Griffs are 9-2 in games decided by five points or fewer, a distinction that applies to six of their last seven victories, but also to their most recent defeat, a 75-70 loss to Manhattan on Sunday at the Koessler Athletic Center, where Canisius squandered an opportunity to even its overall record and win a season-high fourth consecutive game.

Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said all the close games are nerve-wracking, but often more instructional than blowouts.

“It puts players in situations where they can’t relax,” Witherspoon said. “Because we had some games early where we had a big lead. We were up 15 against UAB (before losing, 68-58, on Nov. 25). You can’t relax, though. Heck, we were up 13 with six minutes to go against Marist (before losing, 78-71, in overtime on Feb. 4).

“You can’t relax. You’ve got to stay focused. And we’ve been telling them that, but sometimes kids have to learn the hard way.”

That apparently also applies to Reese, who was named the MAAC preseason player of the year after last season leading the Griffs in average rebounds (5.8), assists (4.7), steals (2.2) and minutes per game (33.4), as well as 3-point field goals (83 made on 35.9 percent shooting from long range).

Reese averaged 11.8 points and 5.9 rebounds in 20 games this season, last appearing in a 78-70 loss at Niagara on Jan. 30, when the junior played just 7 minutes, 50 seconds and went 0-for-3 from the field.

The loss to Niagara was Canisius’ only road loss in conference play.

Senior guard Jonathan Sanks, who has started in place of Reese ever since, scored a career-high 17 points and hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the Griffs' ensuing road game, an 81-80 victory against Rider on Feb. 8.

The Griffs own a 6-1 conference record on the road this season, which bodes well for their upcoming trips to Monmouth and Iona.

“We know just going on the road, we’re all we got on that bus on the way out,” said sophomore guard Takal Molson, the reigning MAAC Rookie of the Year, who leads the team with an average of 16.5 points per game. “We just know we’ve got to play way harder and be poised. When we’re here (at home), we let the crowd sometimes influence how we’re playing and the adrenaline is just rushing sometimes. But on the road, I feel like we’re just more calm. We know the odds are against us, but we’re smarter, I think, on the road.

“It is weird. I’m used to it being the other way, but it doesn’t hurt to be a road warrior. Because the MAAC Tournament isn’t in the KAC, so …”

The conference tournament is scheduled for March 7-11 in Albany.

The top five seeds earn byes into the quarterfinals, and the top three seeds face teams that have to win a first-round game to advance.

Johnson, who has started 93 consecutive games, tops in the conference, hopes the Griffs’ propensity for winning close games and success on the road will translate to this final road trip and the postseason.

“It’s going to have to,” Johnson said. “Every game matters in conference play, but especially when you get to your last five, six games. That’s when you’ve really got to buckle down and you’ve got to win every game in order to put yourself in the best position to win the MAAC Tournament.

“My three years here, we’ve always been a good road team. I just think we have a mentality on the road where it’s just us against the world, and we’re ready to take on the world. When we have that mentality, it’s real hard to stop us.”

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