When it comes to college basketball rivalries in Western New York, it doesn't get any better than Niagara-Canisius.
The series goes back 115 years and the emotion and intensity never varies — it's heart-pounding crazy.
There's something to be said when NU and Canisius hook horns with St. Bonaventure or the University at Buffalo, the other half of the Big Four, but the local rivalry between the Purple Eagles and the Golden Griffins rises to another level, the result of their 30-year-old Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference membership.
It was evident again Wednesday night at the raucous Gallagher Center, where another down-to-the-wire encounter left fans, players and coaches drained after Niagara made the big plays in the final minute to secure a 69-66 victory that was an open-but-errant 3-pointer away from overtime.
It didn't matter that both teams came into the game with losing records and in the bottom half of the MAAC standings. Niagara had lost five of its last six and Canisius four of its last five. Those numbers didn't register with the players or the fans. All of that was tuned out. Going toe-to-toe for 40 minutes with those guys in the other uniform was all that mattered.
On Thursday, Niagara coach Greg Paulus was on the road recruiting, a change of pace after making his debut in this first of two seasonal showdowns with the Griffs. He was glad to talk about the dramatic victory, the eighth of his NU career.
Heated rivalries are nothing new to him, first as a point guard at Duke where he played in nationally televised battles with neighboring North Carolina and more recently as an assistant coach at Ohio State (among other programs) where games against Michigan in both basketball and football are legendary. But this was his first time as a head coach in a rivalry that dates back to 1905.
"It's different," he said of his new role. "There's nothing better than playing, but second best is coaching. It's a neat opportunity and I don't take that for granted."
The Gallagher Center was rocking long before the teams took the court and it continued throughout the game. It can be a distraction for the players and focusing on the job at hand doesn't come easy. That's where Paulus' playing experience and coaching came in Wednesday.
"There's emotion that from comes from rivalries and you need the discipline to make the little plays and get caught up in the emotion," Paulus said. "You have to take it as it comes and stick to the game plan and I think our guys did that."
After Raheem Solomon cooly made two free throws with 31 seconds left to give Niagara a 67-66 lead and Justin Roberts' layup sealed the victory following a Shandon Brown steal, Paulus took the microphone and looking toward the N-Zone, home of the celebrating student body, thanked them for their support.
"The energy and the enthusiasm our fans brought and the student section, it was our third game in six days, and you could feel it when you walked into the gym," Paulus said. "They made a big impact on us winning the game and I just wanted to thank them and let them know how much we appreciate them."
Paulus is familiar with the rivalry and acknowledged the history of great coaches, players and memorable moments over the 188-game series that Niagara leads 107-81. Now he is part of it and so far he has a perfect record in the series. He can add to it on March 6 when the next wild chapter is written, this time at the Koessler Center.
Bill McGrath is a former Niagara Gazette sports editor and Niagara basketball beat writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.