Witherspoon, Reese solidify need for honors by MAAC after win at Niagara

Reese-4

Isaiah Reese, a frontrunner for the MAAC Player of the Year, had his 10th game with at least 20 points this season in Wednesday night’s win over Niagara. (Marshall Haim/The Griffin)

By Marshall Haim

Sports Editor

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Back in November when I made my game-by-game predictions for the men’s basketball season I predicted that Canisius would be 17-12 overall (neglecting to predict the Evansville game) and 9-8 in the MAAC heading into their final contest.

In the MAAC preseason poll, Canisius was slotted to finish in ninth place in the 11-team conference. I had them finishing at either a No. 5 or No. 6 seed.

Needless to say, Canisius, currently with a 20-10 overall record and 14-3 record in the MAAC, sure has proved both the preseason poll and me wrong.

With a 95-88 win over Niagara at the Taps Gallagher Center in Lewiston on Wednesday night, Canisius has secured at least a No. 2 seed in the upcoming MAAC Tournament. It is the first time since 2001 that the Griffs will be either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The tournament begins next Thursday at the Times Union Center in Albany.

A No. 1 or No. 2 seed entitles that Canisius will get an extra day off and will have their first game of the tournament next Friday at either 7 p.m. or 9:30 p.m., depending on where Canisius places in the standings with one game left to play — Sunday at home against Marist.

If Canisius makes the MAAC Championship, they will play games on Friday, Sunday and Monday.

“I think it’s great. At some point we’ll be able to look back on it and reflect,” Canisius head coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “Right now we’re in the middle of this grind and still looking forward and try to find ways to get better. Certainly an accomplishment that we’ll take.”

“We could use it, we’ll take it,” Crumpton, a senior who has had to play in three play-in games at the MAAC Tournament in his Canisius career, added. “It’s good for our guys. We put the work in and we deserve it. We’re going to go in and prepare for whoever we have to play when that day comes and we’ll be ready.”

This leaves me to begin about having Witherspoon be named MAAC Coach of the Year. He has led the Griffs to their first 20-win season since 2013-14, while also leading the Griffs to their first No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the MAAC Tournament in 17 years.

The Buffalo native, who was celebrating his 57th birthday on Wednesday, has proved everyone wrong about this team. His team was picked to be the third worst team in the MAAC in the preseason poll.

That’s right. Third worst.

Yet, he has made Canisius into a team that could conceivably make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 21 years.

I know people would like to see Rider’s Kevin Baggett if the Broncs earn the MAAC title. It would be the Broncs’ first MAAC title since joining the conference in 1997. Rider has not won a conference title since they were in the Northeast Conference in 1994.

However, Witherspoon is well deserving of the honor for the way he has turned this program into a true contender in just two years at Canisius. If he does earn the award, he would become the first Canisius coach to be named MAAC Coach of the Year since John Beilen, the current Michigan head coach, in the 1992-93 season.

Another accolade that Canisius should receive following the season is the MAAC Player of the Year.

Isaiah Reese is well deserving of that award for his play after Kassius Robertson left to play his graduate season at Missouri. After averaging 7.1 points per game last season as a freshman, Reese has turned that number into a eye-opening 16.8 per game clip (503 points in 30 games). He was seventh in the MAAC in scoring per game going into Wednesday’s contest. Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson leads the conference with 21.9 points per contest.

Despite Nelson scoring a lot, he is not a faciliatator like Reese is. Reese came into Wednesday’s contest 12th in the MAAC in rebounding (5.9), fifth in assists (4.7), sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7) and first in steals (2.3).

Nelson does not rank in the top 20 in rebounding, 10th in assists (3.3), 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3) and 13th in steals (1.3).

Reese is a real team player and should become the first Canisius player to be named MAAC Player of the Year since Billy Baron in 2013-14.

Canisius’ win on Wednesday night was propelled by Reese, who scored 19 of his team-best 26 points in the second half, including 14 of those coming in the final 11 minutes.

“I feel like the momentum started going our way and then I fed off that energy from our teammates and that allowed me to score,” Reese, who has scored 20-plus points in three consecutive games, said.

The 6-foot-5 guard was 9-of-15 from the floor, including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc for the game. He also added six assists and four rebounds.

As a team, the Griffs shot 58.6 percent (17-of-29) in the final 20 minutes, shooting 50.8 percent (30-of-59) for the game.

“I thought it was a hard fought game,” Witherspoon stated. “It was a hot building, great atmosphere again. I thought it was a team win for us because we had great contributions from guys when we had foul trouble.”

Niagara Falls native Jermaine Crumpton had 16 points and six rebounds while Takal Molson chipped in with 13 points, a team-high seven rebounds and a new career-high four steals.

Kahlil Dukes led Niagara offensively with 26 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field. Like Reese, Dukes was 4-of-8 from three-point range.

Niagara did what they could without their second leading scorer, Matt Scott. The senior sprained his ankle in the first half of last Friday’s win at Iona. He did not return and has not played since.

Purple Eagles head coach Chris Casey said following the game that he is still day-to-day. He was sporting a walking boot and was on crutches during warmups.

Canisius will conclude the regular season on Sunday at home against Marist on Senior Day. Senior ceremonies will begin at approximately 1:45 p.m. The Griffs will honor their two seniors: Crumpton and Selvedin Planincic in a pregame ceremony.

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