By JONAH BRONSTEIN
Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — The Niagara Purple Eagles’ winning streak died and came back to life Sunday.
Marvin Jordan made a 3-pointer with three seconds left and Billy Baron made a runner at the buzzer that left his fingertips a tick too late as Niagara left a capacity crowd at the Koessler Center shocked and awed by a 66-65 win over rival Canisius that was closer than the score suggests.
The Purple Eagles (13-8, 9-1 MAAC) have now won five straight over the Golden Griffins (13-8, 6-4) and five straight overall. The youngest team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, winners of nine straight league games for the first time ever, is alone atop the MAAC standings. In 24 years of MAAC affiliation, only one other Niagara team, the 1998-99 squad coach Joe Mihalich inherited, has ever had such a successful 10-game start.
Yet, few triumphs have been more exhilarating.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder,” Mihalich said afterward.
It was an “epic battle,” Mihalich said, that saw six ties and eight lead changes. Niagara dug out of a 10-point hole early in the second half and a four-point deficit late but still found itself trailing 65-63 after Baron made a driving layup with 11 seconds remaining.
But while Baron was tangled up underneath the basket and his father/coach Jim Baron couldn’t call the timeout he wanted, Niagara’s Juan’ya Green raced up the floor determined to score the tying basket or draw a foul. Falling off balance in his pursuit to the paint, Green took advantage of the Purple Eagles’ numbers, pivoting and passing across his body to Jordan all alone in the opposite corner.
With the Niagara bench at his back and 6-10 Canisius center Jordan Heath closing in on him, the 5-10 guard known to his teammates as “MJ” knocked down the game-winner that gave him a season-high 23 points, 19 of which came after a halftime that began with he and Heath needing to be separated at center court.
Then, in an instant, Baron had barrelled back up the court and dropped in what appeared to be the winning basket. Jordan went to the bench to relieve his cramping legs while the Canisius players celebrated with the crowd. Mihalich looked at the scorer’s table, and was told the shot beat the buzzer.
Before you knew it, Jordan was being bear-hugged by Mihalich in the middle of the floor, and the small slice of purple-wearing fans in the stands were ecstatic over the sudden turn of events.
Billy Baron, a rookie in this 106-year-old rivalry, was stunned.
“I kind of blacked out,” the junior transfer from Rhode Island said. “I can’t explain the feeling. It was a high to the ultimate low. You see them celebrate on your home court, it takes everything out of you. It absolutely drains you.”
But Baron acknowledged that the Griffs lost the game before the final buzzer. They shot 38.5 percent from the field and earned only eight free throws at home. Their 12 turnovers turned into 19 Niagara points, and despite having a size advantage, they were outscored 34-24 in the paint.
“The toughest team won this game,” said Chris Manhertz, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds and was “the toughest guy on the floor,” according to Mihalich.
Antoine Mason added 14 points for Niagara, matching the output from Canisius’ Issac Sosa. Green had nine points, same as Baron, but also chipped in eight assists (two more than his counterpart), five steals and five rebounds.
Niagara now plays five of its final eight MAAC games at home, but that doesn’t mean the schedule gets any easier. On Thursday, second-place Iona (14-7, 8-2), the lone team to beat Niagara this year, visits the Gallagher Center, and third-place Loyola (15-7, 7-3) is on deck for Saturday.
Canisius comes to the Gallagher Center on Feb. 9.