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Majesty Brandon, Canisius spoil Niagara's bid for MAAC Tournament bye

The Canisius men’s basketball team took on the role of spoiler.

Locked into the 10th seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, by virtue of a win earlier this week at Marist, the Golden Griffins ended Niagara’s chances of earning the fifth seed in the conference and a first-round bye.

Niagara got within striking distance of the Purple Eagles in the final minutes of the second half, cutting what was once a 15-point lead to five twice in the final 1:39 of regulation. But the Golden Griffins persisted, and earned a 67-63 win against Niagara.

Majesty Brandon scored 19 points fort the Griffs in the regular-season finale for both teams Friday at the Koessler Athetic Center.

A win for the Purple Eagles (11-20, 9-11 MAAC) would have locked up the fifth seed and a first round bye in the MAAC Tournament, which begins Tuesday in Atlantic City, N.J. Instead, the Purple Eagles dropped to the sixth seed and will face No. 11 Marist in a first-round game at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Canisius (12-19, 7-13) closed the regular season with back-to-back wins and faces No. 7 Iona in a first-round game at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“We’re going to have to work on the things we’ve been working on and apply them, from the beginning,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “We’ll go to work on that in the next 24 hours and get ourselves ready.”

A 12-0 run gave the Griffs their first lead at 22-21 with 5:15 left in the first half, but after James Towns completed three-point play with 3:57 left  the lead went back to Niagara. Corey Brown’s putback cut Niagara’s lead to 29-26 with 23 seconds left, and Malik Johnson’s layup off a turnover by Marcus Hammond (15 points) brought the Griffs within one at 29-28 with 0.8 seconds left in the half.

Yet while Johnson couldn’t complete the three-point play, the Griffs took the momentum from the last-minute rally into the second half.

“Any game, ending the first half strong is always crucial,” said Johnson, who scored 14 points. “Especially when you’re playing your rival team. I think that helped us out a lot, going into halftime, but you just want to stay focused during halftime and come out with that same energy. I think we did a good job of that.”

The Griffs opened the second half on an 11-2 run – including five points by Jordan Henderson – that opened their lead to 39-32, less than five minutes into the half. The Purple Eagles opened 3 for 10 from the floor, and trailed by as many as 11 points in the first 11 minutes of the second half.

“They did a really good job finishing the last 40 seconds, 40 and change,” Niagara coach Greg Paulus said. “We called a timeout. We had a couple turnovers and they had an opportunity to get a bucket in transition, and then they carried that over into the second half, in those first four minutes.”

But inside the four-minute mark of the second half, the Purple Eagles erased Canisius’ once-15-point lead, by taking advantage of the Griffs’ lapses.

“I don’t think they really did anything different,” Johnson said. “We had a couple defensive lapses, we fouled a couple times and put them on the line, turned the ball over a couple times and they kind of got some momentum. They hit a couple shots, got some free throws and set up in their press. But we just had to push back up, keep grinding on offense, get great shots and not turn the ball over.”

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Paulus and Witherspoon did not shake hands at the end of the game, after the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference issued precautions Thursday in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. A memo that listed precautions the league will take in preparation for the league tournament was sent to coaches and school administrators, which included a ban of handshakes.

Four cases of coronavirus were confirmed in New Jersey, according to the New York Post on Friday.

“I actually didn’t know about it until I went over to shake hands,” Witherspoon said. “From what I’m hearing now, it’s a league order. As far as going from here … This thing is so new. A former player of mine in Italy is telling me they’re not even letting people come watch the game. We’ll see what goes on, going forward.”

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