By Jonah Bronstein
LEWISTON — Rob Garrison grew up around the Niagara-Canisius rivalry. He never needed to be reminded of its intensity. But he did need to be prompted to make his mark on the matchup before it was tool late.
Last year, Garrison scored just 11 points total in Niagara’s two blowout wins over Canisius. Last week, Garrison netted nine points in a loss at the Koessler Center, six on desperation 3-pointers in the final minute.
Before Friday’s rematch at the Gallagher Center, Niagara athletics director Ed McLaughlin mentioned to Garrison that this could be his last game against Canisius.
That got Garrison’s attention. He shared the fact with his teammates in the pregame huddle. And he imposed his will on the game from the start, scoring 15 of his 18 points in the first half as Niagara won 66-54 in front of a capacity crowd.
“That’s the Rob we love,” Tyrone Lewis said. “He showed up and played hard. It’s funny, after he scored a couple of buckets, he came to me and said, ‘I’m in the show now. I’m here.’ Last time we played (Canisius), somebody said, ‘C’mon Rob, join the party, Rob.’ ”
Coupled with Rider’s loss at Loyola, Niagara’s win creates a three-way tie for fifth-place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings. Niagara (13-12, 6-7) plays at Rider on Monday.
When Garrison cooled down in the second half, Anthony Nelson took over. He scored all 17 of his points in the second half, none bigger than a 3-pointer that put Niagara ahead for good around the 10-minute mark. After chasing down a long rebound, Nelson looked to reset the offense, but ended up shooting a shot that skipped off the front rim and in, ending a 6:50 scoring drought and an 11-0 Canisius run and putting the Purple Eagles ahead 47-45.
After that, Canisius shot 4 of 15 from the floor and turned the ball over nine times. Niagara had three blocks during the stretch.
The contributions from Garrison and Nelson compensated for off nights from Lewis and Bilal Benn. Niagara’s two leading scorers combined for just 14 points on 6 of 25 shooting.
But Benn (four steals) and Lewis (three) led a defensive effort that forced 26 points off turnovers. Benn also had 11 rebounds, while Lewis pulled in six.
As usual, Niagara took nearly half of its shots from 3-point range (27 of 56), but managed to make a third of them. The Purple Eagles got 26 points in the paint, and shot 42.9 percent from the floor, improving to 10-1 this season when shooting better than 40 percent.
“We were trying to score around the basket more,” coach Joe Mihalich said.
Julius Coles led Canisius with 16 points. Frank Turner had 10 points and eight assists and Tomas Vazquez-Simmons had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
After losing seven of nine to start January, the Purple Eagles are now on a two-game winning streak for the first time since December. And they’re now 21-4 over the past three seasons in the month before Madness.
“We love February. It’s always been good to us,” Mihalich said. “Here we are in February and we’re starting to get our feeling back. Hopefully, we can build on this and use it as a springboard win.”
Said Nelson, “It’s our month.”