Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — A raucous crowd and a terrible first half were too much for the Niagara Purple Eagles and their struggling defense to overcome in an 87-74 loss to the Little 3 rival Canisius Golden Griffins in the 173rd meeting between the two schools Wednesday night at a sold out Koessler Athletic Center.
The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference duo are in the middle of very different seasons, and it showed early as the Golden Griffins (13-7, 7-2) jumped out to a double digit lead just 7:01 into the first half.
Niagara (5-15, 2-7) played without arguably its best defender in guard Tahjere McCall, who bit into his tongue and required stitches after getting inadvertently hit at practice Tuesday. Starting in his place was freshman Wesley Myers, who landed the unenviable task of guarding Canisius guard Billy Baron — the nation’s third-leading scorer.
With NU keying on Baron, senior Jordan Heath made an impact early. The 6-foot-10 center had four points and two blocks in the first six minutes, guarded largely by undersized NU forwards Rayvon Harris and Ramone Snowden, who are both listed at 6-foot-5.
The Purple Eagles, meanwhile, struggled to get anything going offensively. NU went 0 for 4 early, all on jump shots. Senior Marvin Jordan finally broke through with a mid-range jumper with 17:08 left.
Canisius made a flurry of small runs and led by as much as 19 in the first half. Snowden capped the scoring with a 3-pointer from the left corner to cut the Canisius lead to 45-31 heading into the break.
Niagara out-fouled Canisius 12-8 in the half and committed four more turnovers (7-3) while shooting just 45.5 percent (5 for 11) from the free-throw line. The Griffs were 7 for 8 from the stripe.
“We really needed to make a couple shots early,” said NU coach Chris Casey. “We had some open looks.
“We did some good things at times, but the biggest difference was that we’ve got to guard without fouling.”
Canisius started the second half on a 7-2 run, opening up a 20-point lead on a pair of free throws from senior forward Chris Manhertz with 17:28 left.
Some hot shooting form beyond the arc helped NU make a game of it midway through the second. Jordan hit a 3-pointer, followed by Myers fouling Baron on the way up the court. The two had words for each other and had to be separated before Baron hit a pair of free throws. Jordan answered with another trey.
Myers face guarded Baron tight off the ball on the way back up the floor and was called for a technical foul, which Baron said was for trash talking. Casey said he wasn’t sure what the call was.
“It was just two guys playing hard,” Casey said. “Wes is very competitive.”
Baron hit both free throws but again was answered by a 3-pointer, this time from Antoine Mason. Jordan came up with a steal on the next possession and dropped the ball off to a trailing Mason, who cut the score to 66-55 with a one-handed slam.
“We started getting stops on defense,” Mason said about the comeback. “We can always score, it just comes down to defense.”
Baron answered with a running jumper, but Niagara kept pace thanks to Snowden, who got a pair of offensive rebounds before finishing. Heath missed a 3 and Mason drained another to cut the lead to eight with 8:26.
That’s as close as Niagara would get. Canisius senior Chris Perez hit a driving layup and a jumper and Baron hit a deep 3-pointer to push the lead to 75-60 with 6:24 left.
Baron finished with a game-high 31 points despite missing time in the second after busting open his head during a collision with Mason right after the break. He needed six stitches but returned to huge cheers from the Canisius student section.
Perez added 19 points, while Manhertz had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Heath finished with four blocks.
Niagara struggled to get to the line, shooting only 16 free throws compared to Canisius’ 29. When they did get there, the Purple Eagles struggled, hitting only seven (43.8 percent). The Golden Griffin hit 26 of theirs (89.7 percent).
Mason, the top scorer in the country, led Niagara with 29 points. Jordan had 19, while senior Marcus Ware — who started in place of Joe Thomas — grabbed 10 boards before fouling out with just over five minutes remaining.
The Purple Eagles host Marist at 7 p.m. Friday at the Gallagher Center. Casey he wasn’t sure if McCall would be available, calling the injury “day-to-day.”
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