Canisius set to dance with Niagara in MAAC Tournament

Alshwan Hymes attacks the hoops with vigor here. He leads the team in tournament games played, with three.

Alshwan Hymes still thinks about it every day. He hasn’t been able to shake off Canisius’ 60-57 overtime loss to Niagara two weeks ago, when his open look to send the game to double overtime at the buzzer hit the rim and bounced out.

He gets on the court early before practice and takes a ball behind the three-point circle, offset to the left, and envisions himself taking that same shot again and again.

“Each and every day we just put ourselves in that situation and think next time we get that shot, we’re going to hit it,” Hymes said earlier this week before his team departed for the MAAC Tournament, held in Springfield, Mass. “I kind of replay that a lot of times before practice. I go out and shoot a few shots from that same spot that I shot and missed in that game. It was a few shots in overtime that we had that could have sealed the win.”

Canisius has a chance to redeem itself and get even with Niagara tonight as the rivals meet each other in the opening round of the conference tournament.

Niagara sat in sixth place with one game remaining in the regular season, but lost to Marist in its season finale. The loss, combined with Siena’s win over Canisius, dropped Niagara into seventh place, setting up a date with 10th-seeded Canisius in the play-in round.

That scenario bodes well for the Griffs. They only won one conference game all season, beating Marist 67-57 on Jan. 13, but the overtime loss to Niagara was as close as they’ve come to winning since. Past struggles don’t mean anything once the tournament starts, and that’s a fact the team will do its best to revel in.

“Right now we’re 0-0,” Canisius coach Tom Parrotta said. “We think we have a great opportunity to win this basketball game, especially based on what happened up at the Gallagher Center. … There were so many opportunities from that game that we didn’t take advantage of. We thought that if we can just take those away and capitalize on them, we’ll have a great opportunity to win.”

Canisius has had depth problems all season, a contributing factor to why the team struggled to stay in games and keep them competitive. Canisius went 0-18 this season when trailing at halftime and was outscored 1,158-983 in the second half of games.

The last meeting with Niagara, however, was the most resilient performance of the season. Parrotta and his group have employed a new theme this week to get their mindset around playing a complete game, start to finish.

“Our motto throughout the last few practices is just ’40 minutes a game,’ ” Hymes said. “Play it all-out, play it as hard as we can, and hopefully we can advance in this tournament after beating [Niagara].”

It won’t be an easy task. Purple Eagles coach Joe Mihalich is 22-8 in his career against the Griffs and always seems to have his team peaking at the right time. Freshman sensation Juan’ya Green (17.5 ppg, 4.4 apg) was named MAAC Rookie of the Year and classmate Antoine Mason (15.4 ppg, 2.2 apg) would have been a good candidate in any other year.

Green has good chemistry on the floor with Ameen Tanksley, his boyhood pal from Philadelphia, and sophomore guard Marvin Jordan also scores over 10 points a night.

Mihalich doesn’t hesitate to use four guards, but that extra speed can also leave Niagara exposed in the rebounding department. Chirs Manhertz needs to continue to be a beast on the glass and Josiah Heath needs to come out with the same intensity that led him to a 14-rebound performance in the last Niagara game, which propelled Canisius to a gaping 52-37 advantage on the boards.

Where Canisius failed to succeed last game was turning opportunities into results: 21 offensive rebounds were only converted into 10 second-chance points.

Parrotta’s teams have now finished in the bottom four of the conference in five of his six seasons as coach. The team may want to forget about this year’s stats, but one record Parrotta won’t want to throw out is his mark in play-in round games: undefeated.

“We do have that in our favor, so we know we can win,” Parrotta said. “I think we’ll talk about that as a group. This is not uncharted territory. We’ve been in the play-in round before. We don’t like being here, but here we are and every time we’ve been in it we’ve been able to get a victory. Do we use that as motivation? I don’t know, but the guys will certainly be aware of that.”

Canisius and Niagara have the late game tonight, with tipoff set for 9:30 at the MassMutual Center. The winner will take on second-seeded Loyola at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Other matchups:

No. 1 Iona vs. winner of No. 8 Marist vs. No. 9 Saint Peter’s

No. 4 Fairfield vs. No. 5 Rider

No. 3 Manhattan vs. No. 6 Siena

Predictions:

Anything can happen in the conference tournament – just ask Saint Peter’s, which surprised everyone last year – but this year Iona is the true favorite. The Gaels’ 24-6 overall record could be enough for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, regardless of how they fare this weekend.

Iona finished the regular season No. 1 in the country in scoring at 83.4 ppg while losing only three conference games, falling to Siena and Loyola on the road and Manhattan at home.

All three teams, however, fall on the opposite side of the bracket as Iona, meaning the only place they could meet is in the MAAC Championship. The best team on Iona’s side is fourth-ranked Fairfield, which has the talent to win but hasn’t been able to play well in big games.

The nod has to go to NBA prospect Scott Machado and his Iona Gaels, with only the size of Loyola possibly preventing them from taking the MAAC crown.

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