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Raheem Solomon's late free throws lift Niagara past Canisius in Battle of the Bridge

Marcus Hammond and James Towns had plenty of confidence in their teammate.

With his team trailing by a point with 31.3 seconds left in regulation, Raheem Solomon stepped to the free throw line. Solomon's first successful shot tied the game. His second shot gave the Niagara men’s basketball team its final lead in a 69-66 win against Canisius on Wednesday at the Gallagher Center.

“I was excited for him,” said Hammond, a guard who led the Purple Eagles with 17 points. “Those are two big free throws and that is something that he will probably never forget, to win a game like that for us. That was huge.

“He had no worries about him. Just confidence, knocking both of them down.”

Towns, who added 16 points, had no doubt Solomon wouldn’t miss his shots.

“I knew Raheem was going to make those free throws,” Towns said. “I’ve seen him in those types of situations before. I knew those free throws were going in.”

Eleven seconds after Solomon sank the two free throws – his only free throws of the game – Justin Roberts’ layup off a turnover by Canisius guard Malik Johnson with 20.3 seconds left helped Niagara seal the win, as Canisius’ Scott Hitchon and Jordan Henderson each missed 3-point attempts inside the final 10 seconds.

“We got two completely uncontested, not even a close-out 3,” said Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon, whose team has lost five of its last six games. “They were wide-open 3s, so the execution was fine.”

The Purple Eagles (8-16, 6-7 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) helped Greg Paulus earn his first win against the Golden Griffins in the Battle of the Bridge basketball series. The Purple Eagles lead the all-time series, 107-81, which dates back to Niagara's inaugural basketball season in 1905-06.

Paulus, who’s no stranger to storied basketball rivalries as a former All-American at Duke, had to catch his breath after the win.

“What a basketball game,” Paulus said. “Unbelievable to be a part of it.”

The Purple Eagles led by as many as 10 points three times in the first half, but Canisius (9-15, 4-9) narrowed Niagara’s lead to 34-29 with 40 seconds left on Armond Harried’s 3-pointer. Then, after Solomon’s turnover off a bad pass, the Griffs converted on their final possession of the half, as Malik Johnson hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer that cut Niagara’s lead to 34-32.

The Golden Griffins grabbed 14 offensive rebounds in the second half and exercised their depth, as Jacco Fritz came off the bench to score a team high 18 points, including 15 of Canisius’ 22 second-half bench points. Canisius wiped out Niagara’s lead twice in the first 10 minutes of the second half, first when Jordan Henderson’s layup tied the game at 46-46 at 12:37, and then when Fritz’s layup tied the game at 48-48 less than 90 seconds later.

“We just want to win,” said Fritz, a freshman who had 12 rebounds after missing the last three games because of an upper-body injury. “It might be a back-and-forth game, but we’ve just got to keep playing and keep doing our thing, on offense and especially on defense. Getting stops. Work hard as a team and stay together as a team.”

With 10:19 left, Fritz’s free throws gave Canisius its first lead at 51-50, the first of seven lead changes in a span of 6:02, as Hammond’s jump shot with 4:17 left completed that stretch and gave Niagara a 60-59 lead. Even that lead wasn’t secure, as the Griffs took a 66-65 lead with 1:01 left on Henderson’s layup.

Then, 30 seconds later, Fritz fouled Solomon.

“Once we lost the lead, we knew we had to become more of a team and fight back together," said Towns, who scored 16 points.

Paulus saw how his team squeezed out a key win in the MAAC, after dropping five of its last six games.

“I’m just really proud of my guys, just for making one extra play there at the end of the game, to find a way to get it done,” Paulus said.

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