By Jonah Bronstein
BUFFALO — The three days in March mantra is starting to become a miscalculation.
Canisius outlasted rival Niagara 73-70 in an overtime thriller Friday, putting the Purple Eagles in a position where, if the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament started today, they’d be one of four teams in a play-in game.
Having lost three MAAC games in a row and seven of nine in January, Niagara (11-12, 4-7) is now trails Rider by one win and a head-to-head tiebreaker for the sixth first-round bye.
The Purple Eagles are struggling so bad that coach Joe Mihalich was trying to use this gut-wrenching loss as a way to boost his team’s confidence. Mihalich wore the agony of defeat on his sweat-soaked sleeve after last Sunday’s home loss to Rider. While he didn’t use the words “moral victory” on Friday, he certainly expressed the sentiment.
“Everyone is referring to last year, so I might as well too,” Mihalich said. “There were some stretches (Friday) that felt like last year. My message was we need to have that for more than just some stretches. We need to get that feeling back, that intensity back, that spirit back.”
As has been the case throughout its month-long slump, the Purple Eagles did themselves in with poor shooting. In the second half and overtime, Niagara shot 30 percent from the field.
Tyrone Lewis led Niagara with 19 points and Bilal Benn had 15. But those two combined for just five points in the final 15 minutes of game action. Lewis, who had missed the last two games because of a bruised left shoulder, looked to be playing with one arm after taking a hit with seven minutes left in regulation, though he said it was just lingering pain from the initial injury that happened late last week.
“It was hurting throughout the game,” he said. “I just felt like I didn’t come back and take charge. ... I didn’t finish the job.”
Anthony Nelson scored 14 points, grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds and dished out five assists.
For the Golden Griffins (11-11, 6-5), the win was another step in the maturing process that they hope will culminate in a run of games at the MAAC tournament.
Elton Frazier led Canisius with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and three incredible dunks. Frank Turner notched 18 points and five assists, and Julius Coles scored 16 points.
While the Purple Eagles went on a 4:18 scoring drought in overtime, Canisius went ona 9-0 run punctuated by Frank Turner’s 25-foot 3-pointer that delighted a capacity crowd at the Koessler Center that was said to be as louder than an airport runway.
Niagara scored first on overtime, on a Rob Garrison jumper from the baseline, but didn’t hit another shot until Garrison made a step-back 3-pointer with 24 seconds left, cutting Canisius’ lead to 71-67.
After Elton Frazier made one of two free throws, Tyrone Lewis buried another 3-pointer, his first bucket since the 18:10 mark of the second half, bringing Niagara within 72-70 with 14 seconds left.
The Purple Eagles had a chance to force double overtime when Turner missed the second of two free throws with 11.6 seconds remaining. Garrison grabbed the rebound and dribbled up the court before launching a double-clutch 3 from the corner that bounced off the side of the rim.
Nelson willed Niagara back into the game late in regulation, muscling himself to the line for six points in a row and then lofting an outlet pass to Rob Garrison for a layup that was goaltended, tying the game at 62 with 2:16 left.
Neither team scored again until overtime. Benn turned it over trying thread a pass to Lewis on Niagara’s final possession. Benn atoned for his mistake on defense, switching onto Turner and forcing him into an off-balance one-handed heave from well beyond the 3-point line at the buzzer.
After Austin Cooley scored five points in a row to tie the game at 53, Canisius went on a 9-1 run capped by Coles’ spinning layup with four minutes left.
Niagara never trailed in a free-flowing first half, but led just 34-32 at the break after being up by as many as eight points.
“Wow, what a ballgame,” Mihalich said. “It stings to come out on the short end. Two good teams going at it. One team is in a little bit of a hot stretch right now. We’re not. But it was a great college basketball game. Great rivalry game. Every play counted.”
Not as much it will count five weeks from today when the MAAC quarterfinals are played.
“We can’t just wait for those three days in March,” Mihalich said. “The clock’s ticking.”
Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258.