ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Nobody has played more games for Canisius than Malik Johnson, but the Golden Griffins wish the senior’s run could have lasted a little longer.
Canisius bid farewell to its star point guard after the No. 10-seeded Griffs’ season ended with a 70-60 loss to No. 7 Iona in the first round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament Tuesday at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
Iona (12-16, 10-11), the four-time defending conference tournament champions, advanced to face No. 2 St. Peter’s (17-12, 14-6) in the quarterfinals at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“Just walking off the court, I don’t really think it hit me yet,” Johnson said. “But when it (does), I know I’ll probably be crying and doing all the other stuff. But it was a joy, four years. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Johnson, an All-MAAC third-team selection and the Griffs’ all-time leader with 644 assists, is one of three seniors Canisius (12-20, 7-14 MAAC) will lose to graduation, along with starting forward Corey Brown – a graduate transfer from Northern Arizona – and reserve forward Dantai St. Louis.
Brown had a team-high 16 points and 9 rebounds and Johnson added 13 points and 6 assists in the final game of their college careers.
“I wouldn’t say I gave it thought, but it’s tournament time," Johnson said. "You know it’s one and done, if you lose. But I was 100% confident in the style I was playing and our guys, that we were going to come out and get a victory. We had a great gameplan, we out-rebounded them, we had less turnovers, more shots. The free throw line hurt us. But I was confident we were going to win the game.”
Johnson played in 131 games, tying former Griffs forward Josiah Heath for most in Canisius history. The Richmond, Va., native averaged 8.3 points, 5.9 assists, two steals and 5.9 rebounds per game during the regular season and finishes his college career as the first player in program history with at least 1,000 career points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 200 steals.
“His spirit, his determination, his will, his desire,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said, rattling off a list of Johnson’s attributes he’ll miss most. “He’s a person that not only never missed a game, and not only never missed a practice, he never missed a minute of practice. And he got dinged up. He’s not the biggest guy in the world. But he’s just so determined.
“He has been great to work with and we’ve had a lot of success with him. He was a big part, a leader of the team that hung a banner for the first time in almost a quarter century, so to have a guy like that around and to have a guy like that whose grit and determination, no matter who we’re playing – his first game was at Kentucky, Rupp Arena – and then off the court, he’s been great. He’s a guy that’s going to graduate with a master’s degree. … He’s been awesome.”
Iona senior swingman E.J. Crawford, who led the league in scoring during the regular season, had a game-high 25 points – including a perfect 10-for-10 performance from the free throw line – and seven rebounds to lead the Gaels.
Isaiah Washington added 24 points, including a 9-for-9 showing from the charity stripe.
Canisius led by as many as five points in the first half, but Iona owned a 36-32 lead at halftime.
The Griffs struggled from the free throw line, hitting just 11-of-22 from the stripe compared to 25-of-27 by Iona, and fell silent from the field for a portion of the second half, hitting just 1-of-9 field goals during a stretch that included a scoring drought that lasted more than four minutes.
Brown hit a jumper and layup to trim Iona's lead to 49-47 with 9½ minutes to play, but the Griffs came no closer the rest of the way, although Johnson hit a 3 to narrow the deficit to 52-50 with eight minutes remaining.
“It was a competitive battle,” Brown said.
Crawford picked up his fourth foul with six minutes to play and Iona leading 56-51. But the Griffs were unable to take advantage with the Gaels’ star on the bench. He returned with 2½ minutes to go and Iona leading by five, and hit a pair of free throws to help seal the Gaels’ victory.
“One thing I’m going to miss is just the camaraderie,” Johnson said. “Each year is a different group of guys. They all bring something different to the table. All different personalities. And I think that’s the fun in college basketball. I think the biggest thing is making relationships. Over four years I built a ton of relationships I think will last a lifetime, not only with players buy definitely the coaches.”
Witherspoon said he’s optimistic about the future of the program, citing the development of freshmen starters Jacco Fritz and Armon Harried.
Fritz, a 6-foot-10, 200-pound forward, was named to the All-MAAC rookie team after averaging 7.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists during the regular season. He started 25 games for the Griffs.
Harried, a 6-4, 185-pound guard who scored 12 points against Iona, averaged 6.4 points and his 34 steals were third-most on the team. He started 31 games.
“I think we have a really good nucleus of guys to work with,” Witherspoon said, “and while we’re still fresh on this year, I’m looking forward to next year.”