Canisius’ shots, dreams fall short again

By Nick Veronica

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Billy Baron’s Canisius career began with tears in his father’s car in a University of Rhode Island parking lot and was bound to end with them too.

“If we made the NCAA tournament, I would cry like a baby right on the court,” Baron told CBS Sports in February. I asked him this week if he meant that or it was just a figure of speech, and he promised it was real.

But Sunday at the MassMutual Center, the tears weren’t so sweet. Baron’s long, desperate three-point attempt fell short at the buzzer and so did his dream.

Canisius was the second-best team on the court Sunday evening in a 75-72 loss to Iona and the end result felt all-too-familiar. The Griffs are not going to the NCAA Tournament. They are not champions.

Billy and Jim Baron tried to hold back their emotions in the press conference and talked about missed opportunities while their minds were clearly elsewhere.

“My teammates trusted me to make decisions the entire year, and they put that trust in me and right now I just feel like I let them down,” Billy Baron said.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Baron raced up the court, dribbled right toward his favorite spot and let one fly from far, far away. He knew it was short when it left his hand and the loss set in before the ball hit the floor. The shot was a prayer that could have sent the game to overtime but was not the reason Canisius lost.

There were too many reasons to pin it down to one. Iona shot the lights out for the first 30 minutes of the game and Canisius’ defense was not very good. Canisius led the rebounding battle, 37-31, but posed little threat outside of Chris Manhertz. Baron was very good but not great for the second day in a row and Canisius played from behind nearly the entire game.

Losing by one shot is the worst type of loss because it makes you question everything. One possession, one rebound, one turnover could have been the difference. What if, what if, what if.

The what-ifs are what keep you up at night, replaying in your head over and over and over until you exhaust yourself thinking of ways it could have been different. You feel like you have earned this suffering when you lose the way the Griffs did Sunday, and in truth, rehashing this pain time and time again is part of how winners become winners, thinking through every aspect of their mistakes so they’ll be ready next time.

Only here, there is no next time. This year was the year, and Billy Baron has no years left. This sick, depressed feeling will dominate the minds of Canisius players and coaches for some time, the seniors especially.

Any person who’s ever tried to console an athlete tells them not to beat themselves up over the what-if scenarios because they left everything they had on the court, but athletes never want to hear that. An athlete defines himself by winning and the opposite of winning is the opposite of successful.

Someday, the fact that the team went from 5-25 to consecutive 20-win seasons and reinvigorated the culture surrounding the program will mean something to them.

Billy Baron has bigger days ahead of him as he preps to convince NBA teams he can play at their level. If this is as high as Chris Manhertz gets in basketball, he’ll eventually be consoled knowing he went out like a warrior, dominating on both ends for 15 points and 13 rebounds – both season highs – as he went without his protective face mask so nothing could hold him back. He had consecutive double-doubles in the tournament this weekend and had a double-double in last year’s loss to Iona as well.

Chris Perez gave Baron the complimentary scoring threat he needed this year and was rock solid on defense. His story was often overlooked in the shadow of Baron, but Perez came to Buffalo to win a championship and play in the NCAA Tournament, too. Even Jordan Heath, the streakiest of the seniors who played poorly Sunday, will come around and put this transition in perspective.

But all of that is down the road. Sunday’s main course was pain with a side of suffering.

Canisius hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996 and won’t realistically set its sights on the dance for at least another few years. Next season’s projected lineup will have you scouring JUCO rosters and message boards for transfer options.

After last season’s quarterfinal defeat, this year was all or nothing for the Canisius, and they didn’t get it all.

Baron and the Griffs will watch the NCAA Tournament from home while competing in the CIT or CBI, third-tier postseason tournaments that have expressed interest. It’s nice to be recognized in those tournaments but it’s an empty feeling when you missed what you really wanted.

One of the few guarantees in life is that it goes on. “I’m not leaving here without hearing Canisius’ name on selection sunday,” were the exact words in Baron’s proclamatory tweet, but soon enough he will have to anyway. As deep and as real as the pain is now, he and the Griffs will eventually move on.

Milestone not enough, Griffs need two more wins

[Live blog + Postgame video + MAAC bracket]

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.

Canisius’ Manhertz returns to practice, expected to play vs. Quinnipiac

By Nick Veronica

CCLogobigCanisius senior forward Chris Manhertz was cleared for practice this week after missing the last three games with a broken nose and is probable for Thursday’s game against Quinnipiac.

Manhertz suffered the injury Feb. 7 in a loss to Manhattan. He returned to practice Tuesday wearing a custom face mask, the school said, and will practice again later today.

Canisius can use the services of its leading rebounder Thursday as the Griffs face a Quinnipiac team that leads the country in rebounding at 45.9 per game. Canisius is 251st in rebounding at 33.6 per game and has struggled defensively without Manhertz.

It’s also a huge game in the MAAC standings, as both teams enter in the game tied for third place at 12-4. Canisius went 2-1 with Manhertz out of the lineup, including a loss to Iona and wins at Niagara and Siena (3OT).

Whether or not Manhertz will start the game, assuming he plays, has not yet been decided.

Immediate reactions: Canisius 71, Niagara 65

By Nick Veronica

How it happened: Niagara was ahead for most of the night but Billy Baron led Canisius back into the game with 21 points in the second half. Chris Perez was valuable as well, attacking the hoop for 17 points. Canisius led at 4-2 and then not again until 57-56, but was able to recover to sweep the season series from Niagara for the first time since 1994-95.

Canisius was dreadful from three-point range, making only 4 of 20 attempts, but finished the game well. Niagara led 61-58 with 5:56 remaining but was outscored 13-4 the rest of the way.

What it means: Canisius snaps a two game losing streak and keeps pace with Manhattan and Quinnipiac (11-4), who are all tied for second place in the MAAC behind Iona (14-2). Billy Baron finishes his career 2-0 at the Gallagher Center. Niagara falls to 3-12 in conference.

Manhertz out again: Chris Manhertz missed his second consecutive game with a broken nose. He is still dealing with pain and didn’t feel well Friday so he did not make the trip to the Gallagher Center. Jim Baron said later that Manhertz has hardly left his campus dorm room. The procedure to reset his nose was successful, I was told, but he has not yet returned to practice. Phil Valenti started again in Manhertz’s place. Total rebounds were 45-38 Niagara.

Scoring watch: Mason, who leads the country at 26.3 ppg, finished with 17 points. Baron, who entered the game ranked fifth at 23.6, scored 34.

Action for Bleeker: Kevin Bleeker didn’t play in either game last weekend despite having a short bench but played 16 minutes tonight as Jordan Heath and Phil Valenti were in early foul trouble. That was only two minutes off his season high, but he didn’t put up much on the scoresheet. He finished with three rebounds.

MAAC outlook: Canisius improves to 11-4 with five games left on the conference schedule; the top five teams get first-round byes at the MAAC tournament. This matches Canisius’ conference win total from year.

Baron’s tie was not purple: I spent a chuck of the game talking with people about Jim Baron’s tie. My seat was toward the Niagara end of the press table and from there it really looked like he was wearing a purple tie. Several people, both in attendance and watching on ESPN, mentioned they thought it was purple and didn’t think that was a good look for the Canisius coach. One person on Twitter said there were “definitely some violet hues going on.” But I had a perfect view when Baron came over to the table for his post-game radio interview. Crisis averted. (Of course, that tweet should say personal, not person.)

Next game: Canisius plays at Siena, 2 p.m. Sunday.

(Oh, and this happened tonight. Seriously.)

Canisius vs. Niagara gameday 2/14/14

By Nick Veronica

Canisius heads up to Lewiston tonight for 9 p.m. game against rival Niagara that will be broadcast on ESPNU.

The teams: Canisius Golden Griffins: 16-9, 10-4 MAAC, 6-6 road. Streak: Lost two.

Niagara Purple Eagles: 6-19, 3-11 MAAC, 5-6 home. Streak: Lost four.

Last weekend: Canisius lost consecutive home games to Manhattan and Iona last weekend, losing a share of the MAAC lead.

Niagara was also swept by the same teams, and lost both games by one point in the final seconds.

About Niagara: If you know anything about Niagara, it’s probably about Antoine Mason, who leads the country in scoring at 26.3 points per game (Billy Baron is fifth). Mason will score at the basket and from range, but is also very effective at getting to the free-throw line, leading the country in both free throws made and attempted. No other Purple Eagles averages double-digit points per game, but Marvin Jordan (9.9 ppg) has a knack for playing very well against Canisius. Tahj McCall missed the first Canisius-Niagara game of the year after he nearly bit through his tongue and had to have stitches (it happened during basketball, not one of those Novocain horror stories) but will play this time.

Series history: Funny you should ask. Niagara leads the all-time series, but we’re not exactly sure of the record. I wrote a story for the Buffalo News this week looking into the history of the rivalry, and could confirm a record of at least 97-75 for Niagara. There were five games that I couldn’t confirm: two games Canisius thinks it won (in 1904 and 1906), two games Niagara thinks it won (1907 and 1910), and one game they both think they won (1920). Canisius has two straight wins in the series but lost five in a row before that.

Manhertz status: Canisius’ leading rebounder missed Sunday’s game against Iona due to a broken nose. He had a procedure to reset the bones this week and had a custom face mask made but there is no official word yet on his status.

UPDATE: Manhertz will not play tonight for Canisius.

MAAC standings:

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 2.25.24 PM

Teams play 20 conference games.

How to follow the game:

I’ll have coverage from the Gallagher Center, so follow on Twitter while you’re suffering through a Valentine’s Day dinner. If you’re at a restaurant with televisions, have them flip to ESPNU. Doug Sherman and Mo Cassara have the call.