By Nick Veronica
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Billy Baron did not have exceptional game Saturday under the tournament lights he’s waited for all year. He was only very good, which is to say Siena executed its gameplan against the best player in the conference, badgering him relentlessly in the hope of forcing him to play differently than he would like, because playing in that way would surely mean their defeat.
Baron couldn’t seem to get comfortable on the floor of the MassMutual Center, but in the end, the MAAC’s Player of the Year still did enough, still found ways to lead the Griffs to victory. He led Canisius with 17 points, six assists and five steals en route to a 71-65 win over fifth-seeded Siena in the MAAC quarterfinals, lifting Canisius to the semifinal round for the first time since 2002.
That feat in and of itself would have been reason for celebration in previous years. But not this time. This year is all or nothing, just like Baron has said and tweeted all year, and the road gets exponentially harder from here.
Canisius faces reigning champion and No. 1 overall seed Iona in the semifinals Sunday, the same team that eliminated the Griffs last year.
Iona, led by MAAC Coach of the Year Tim Cluess and first-teamers Sean Armand and A.J. English, made quick work of Rider in its quarterfinal game, winning 94-71 while shooting nearly 60 percent.
English needed to score only six points in the win as Armand scored 20, big man David Laury had 18 and Tre Bowman, often forgotten about in this deep lineup, went off for 28.
Iona scores the fourth-most points in the country and plays so fast most teams can’t keep up. They’ve been beaten by conference opponents three times this year: Once when Quinnipiac outrebounded them 50-27, once when Manhattan squeaked past in overtime and once when Baron was the best player on the court.
The star will need to be the star again Sunday, and he’ll need everyone around him to play their best too. Chris Manhertz got that memo Saturday and was dominant in the second half, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds for his 13th career double-double.
“Just being relentless,” Manhertz said of the difference in the Griffs’ rebounding Saturday compared with the rest of the season. “Coach Baron preached that to us throughout the whole season. I know we had ups and downs with it the whole season, but it finally sets in when it’s either you win or go home, and I think the guys responded pretty well today.”
Just look at rebounds in Siena’s end for proof: Siena collected 14 defensive rebounds, Canisius had 13 offensive boards.
As for secondary scoring, Zach Lewis hit a three-pointer early but made freshmen mistakes as the game progressed. It was another veteran, Chris Perez, who stepped up, leading the team in field goals with six and finishing as the second-leading scorer behind Baron with 13 points.
“I told the guys, this is my senior year, they better not mess it up for me,” Perez said in the press conference. The room broke into laughter, but of course, Perez wasn’t entirely kidding.
This is it. It’s one win down for Canisius, two more to go.Follow @nickveronica