By Jonah Bronstein
The phrase “throw the records out the window” has been used before a lot of Niagara-Canisius men’s basketball games over the last dozen years.
That won’t be necessary tonight, when the Little Three rivals meet in a pivotal Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference game at the Koessler Center.
Not since 1998 has Canisius (10-11, 5-5) been ahead of Niagara (11-11, 4-6) in the MAAC standings after 10 games. That was the season before Joe Mihalich took over the Purple Eagles.
Of late, the series has been as one-sided as at any point in its history. Niagara has won 13 of the last 14 meetings, and even Canisius coach Tom Parrotta regards his team’s home win two years ago as a “fluke.”
“When we were at the top of the standings the last couple of years, we had to match their intensity because we knew how big it would be for them to beat us,” said Niagara’s Tyrone Lewis, who is expected to return tonight after missing the last two games with a shoulder injury.
Last February, the Purple Eagles put on a dominant defensive performance, winning 57-41. The last time Niagara held Canisius to so few points was 1941.
Lewis said the Purple Eagles need to rediscover that defensive mindset in order to revive an offense that has struggled mightily this month. In losing six of eight MAAC games for the first time under Mihalich, Niagara has averaged less than 63 points in regulation.
“When you get a lot of fast break points, those layups, it makes the 3-point shot a lot easier,” Lewis said.
Lewis said another reason the Purple Eagles have struggled late is that fellow seniors Bilal Benn, Rob Garrison and Demetrius Williamson have had to learn how to respond to losing after having been on winning teams for their entire careers.
“I remember talking to ’Meech and he said, ‘I’m not used to this, Ty.’ He was emotionally stressed. He didn’t know what to do,” said Lewis, who didn’t come from a powerhouse high school program and lost eight of his first 10 games as a freshman in 2007.
That was the last time the Purple Eagles were 11-11. From then on, they won 12 straight on their way to the MAAC Championship.
“I’ve been here before,” Lewis said. “This is all about just banding together. One win will get us going.”
“The sky is not falling,” Mihalich said. “We’re a .500 team right now, but we can get it together in a quick fashion and be a good team. These guys have won a lot of games. They’ve been to the postseason. They don’t need to win 12 in a row to feel invincible. We just need a couple good wins.”
Led by senior guard Frank Turner, who is tied with Lewis for the MAAC scoring lead, the Golden Griffins have matured this season. They’re 4-4 since January, but have played well in losing efforts at Siena and Fairfield.
“We feel we’re even better than our record,” Turner said.
In his first three years at Canisius, Parrotta didn’t feel his team was good enough to beat Niagara without a good amount of luck.
“They’re a team that’s had their way with us for many years,” said Parrotta, who was a Niagara assistant from 1995 through 2001. “But we’ve come a long way.”
“This is probably one of the biggest games of the season,” said Julius Coles, the Griffs’ second-leading scorer. “During the offseason, we go up there and play against those guys. We know them well. And obviously we have a lot of history.”
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258.