By Mike Meiler firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — LEWSITON — The Niagara Purple Eagles could’ve used a lesson in closing out games a week ago.
After blowing a late lead for the third straight game, they got it Friday night courtesy of the rival Canisius Golden Griffins.
Canisius’ Chris Perez hit the go-ahead layup with 57 seconds left and star guard Billy Baron hit six straight free throws to put the game away as Niagara lost its third straight to a top Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference opponent, 71-65 at the Gallagher Center.
Niagara (6-20, 3-12 MAAC) held its largest lead, 44-33, with 17:01 left in the second half and led by nine with 12:30 remaining. That’s when Canisius (17-9, 11-4 MAAC) made its run.
Jordan Heath finished a put-back dunk, Perez hit a pair of free throws and Baron hit a layup to pull within three. NU senior Marvin Jordan missed 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, and Baron unloaded from deep to tie the game at 52.
Canisius took its first lead of the second half with 7:44 left when Heath drained a 3 from the corner. Jordan responded with a trey of his own just 10 seconds later, and Antoine Mason hit a high jumper over the 6-foot-10 Heath to push give NU a 61-57 lead.
The Golden Griffins tied it at 61 on a Phil Valenti free throw with 4:30 left, and both teams went cold for almost two minutes. NU’s Marcus Ware snapped the streak with a put-back off a Mason miss with 2:49 left, and NU had a chance to extend its lead after Baron came up short on a jumper.
Mason dribbled around the outside of the arc, trapped by a cheating Canisius defender each time he attempted a drive. Eventually, he coughed the ball up to Perez, who was fouled by Ramone Snowden on a fast break.
Perez sank both free throws to tie it at 63 with 1:55 remaining. NU coach Chris Casey called a timeout to set up a play, but Canisius coach Jim Baron switched defenses and Niagara ended up with a shot clock violation.
“We went back and forth in man and zone,” Baron said. “I thought we took them out of any continuity.”
Perez followed with a hard-spinning layup off the glass that dropped in to take the lead. Again Casey called a timeout.
After the inbounds, Mason aired an off-balance 3 over two defenders that barely caught rim.
“The end of the game, that’s on me,” Casey said. “I need to do a better job of getting us something against that zone in the last couple minutes.”
Baron nailed a pair of free throws and Perez came up with a steal to seal the win.
It was the first time since the 1994-95 season that the Golden Griffins swept Niagara.
“It was a great team victory,” the elder Baron said. “We know the tradition, and to come up here and play in front of sellout crowd (was tough).”
The Purple Eagles next play at Manhattan at 2 p.m. Sunday.