By Emyle Watkins
ALBANY, N.Y. – It’s that single breath, the second the pads of his fingers make contact with the brown cushion of the ball, the moment when his blue Nike high tops have gone as high in the air as gravity allows, that second of calm before the storm. You can almost feel the pause. Then his feet hit and he’s running with all he’s got. Malik Johnson carries the ball up the court after an impressive steal with 2:16 left in play against 10th ranked Marist Red Foxes at the Times Union Center.
The first round of the 2017 MAAC Men’s Tournament and you can almost hear Johnson’s feet pat against the hardwood as he pushes the ball forward. Seven short seconds later, Kassius Robertson positions himself to produce a three-pointer that would break a 69-69 tie. With the shot, the Canisius Golden Griffs would pull themselves ahead of the Red Foxes and end up defeating Marist, 77-73.
“They have a lot of weapons. Right? They have four veteran players and have a lot of confidence. They have good balance and they’re tough to guard,” Marist head coach Mike Maker said.
Thursday night’s first round matchup was ardent for the Griffis, who came in as the number 7 seed in the tournament. Leading in scoring was the fifth-year senior Phil Valenti, who shot 8-for-13 from the field, totalling 23 points. Kiefer Douse, shot 5-for-9, scoring 17 points. Kassius Robertson added 12 points, while Jermaine Crumpton contributed 10.
The Griffs brought a strong heat to the court that allowed them to hold a lead over Marist for just over 27 minutes, with the largest lead being 11 points in the second half.
“I thought the matchup was a favorable one in regards to, they have two really good big guys,” Maker added. “Valenti and Crumpton are absolutely terrific. Crumpton has a lot of weight, and Valenti puts pressure in so many different ways. But, they don’t play with two traditional bigs, and those are teams we can struggle with, the physicality. They beat us in other ways.”
Following their brief moment of rejoice, the Griffs had not even 24 hours to prepare to take on the Saint Peter’s, the 2nd seed in the tournament. Canisius defeated the Peacocks, 72-70, in Teaneck, N.J. before losing at home on Feb 26th, 72-65. Saint Peter’s came out of the regular season with a 18-12 overall record, 14-6 within the MAAC. The Peacocks ended their season as the conference’s worst offensive team, but the best defensive team.
Canisius’ Pep Band was roaring along side with the Dance Griffs and cheerleaders out on the sidelines on Friday night as the Griffs stormed the court. Within the first two minutes of the game scoring was initiated by Crumpton who brought a layup for the Griffs. Saint Peter’s retaliated bringing a layup and two free throws by Quadir Welton. Welton averaged a team-high 11.8 points per game for the Peacocks, bringing the same strength with him in the quarterfinal round, netting 15 points in his 32 minutes on the court.
The Griffs would attempt to come back with a three pointer by Crumpton, but would fall behind Saint Peter’s following a jumper by Nnamdi Enechionyia. With this, the Peacocks began a lead with 14:53 left in the first half that they would clench onto for the remainder of the game.
The largest lead the Peacocks held the Griffs came in the second half at 17 points. Overall, the Peacocks led had the lead for just over 36 minutes (36:01). A stark difference the night before, where the Griffs found themselves fighting to protect their lead, rather than fighting to gain any ground. Canisius ended up finding themselves travelling home on Friday night after losing to Saint Peter’s, 61-58.
“[Canisius] did what they needed to do defensively, and they took us out of rhythm, and really applied the pressure,” Saint Peter’s head coach John Dunne said. “We obviously could have done a little bit better job of handling that, but at the end of the day we made enough plays and stay poised enough to hold on for the win.”
The Griffs saw the core of their scoring coming again from Crumpton who 18 points, including notching his 1,000th point with his first basket of the game, becoming the 37th player in Canisius basketball history to surpass the century mark for points. Freshman Isaiah Reese, had a team-best 19 points.
Throughout the weekend in Albany, the Griffs saw a lot of exceptional power from their veteran players, including Crumpton, Douse, Valenti and Robertson. However, there was also a fair amount of fierce moments on the court for two of their freshest players, Johnson and Reese. Johnson saw 63 minutes on the court this weekend, shooting 4-for-13, while assisting on 13 made shots. Reese played 50 minutes between the two contests, shooting 10-for-17.
“Last year I was at Chattanooga and as a staff we would always say, you know we went through a year where we never lost two games in a row, and we won 29 games, we won our regular season, and we won our conference tournament… but we didn’t play any underclassmen, very many,” said Canisius head coach Reggie Witherspoon. “We didn’t really have underclassmen that were regularly in the rotation.That’s the way it usually is at this level.
“For us to be able to play those guys as many minutes as we have played, is pretty remarkable.They’ve been in these kinds of situations throughout the season, and you know, I never would have guessed that could be. Credit to them, they just keep battling and it’s a really good thing that’s happening.”
Heading into the postseason, Canisius will participate in the ninth annual College Insider Postseason Tournament (CIT). This is the fourth time in the past five years Canisius will participate in the annual postseason tournament. The Griffs look forward to the opportunity to continuing building their younger players while learning from their more seasoned and accomplished veterans.
“I think it will be good for us, it’ll be good for our seniors too, to put the uniform back on, and it’ll be good for our younger guys to get more practices and as many more games as we can possibly get,” stated Coach Witherspoon. “I just think it’s a good situation where you can keep the group together and keep them moving forward.”