Niagara shows Canisius who’s boss

I spent my week watching Canisius and Niagara square off, as the Western New York rivals met each of the last three nights. There was hockey on Tuesday, men’s basketball on Wednesday and another hockey game Thursday.

Neither Canisius team is doing great, but beating Niagara is a way to make something out of a less-than-stellar season. It’s amazing how quickly the story of the year can change from “Canisius wasn’t very good” to “Hey, they beat Niagara.”

Men’s basketball and hockey needed wins this week in the worst way. The basketball team, near the bottom of country in most statistical categories, needs to beat somebody – anybody – to get some momentum going into the conference tournament. For the hockey team, it’s all about trying to stay in the upper tier of the Atlantic Hockey standings, which Canisius has been slipping out of in recent weeks.

But three nights in a row, players in purple were the ones celebrating victories, giving Niagara a decisive advantage in conference standings and the Battle of the Bridge, which is the year-long, all-sport competition between the schools.

“Opportunistic” would hardly be a word to describe either Canisius team. The hockey team’s power play success rate of 9.2 percent is making an irony of the term “man advantage” and the basketball team hasn’t had a season that bad since 1976-77 – but even that 3-22 squad found a way to beat Niagara come February.

After being swept this week, hockey and basketball have combined to lose more than 40 games this winter. Maybe expecting more was too much to ask.

Niagara had the better teams, the better players and the better fans. Purple Eagle Giancarlo Iuorio was the best player on the ice for either team this week, not to mention the one with the best hockey name, with all due respect to Mitch McCrank. Antoine Mason and Juan’ya Green were the best players in the Gallagher Center Wednesday night, elevating their games while Harold Washington and Gaby Belardo went missing.

Not only were the losses humbling for Canisius on the scoreboard, but Niagara also won in stands. One week after RIT’s fans came to Buffalo and silenced Canisius supporters with their organized lunacy and decibel levels, Niagara’s N-Zone returned the favor, outnumbering fans in gold at Buff State at least 10:1.

The attendance at Thursday’s hockey game at Niagara’s own, on-campus arena was 1,249, nearly double the 643 people who hiked over to Buff State Tuesday. Granted, it was Valentine’s Day, but let’s be honest: Niagara always has good support and there is no reason to believe its fans would have let a holiday interfere with something they’ve loved longer than their partner.

Niagara would have made the game a holiday-themed event and fans would have made it a Valentine’s destination. Instead, the holiday was the perfect scapegoat for a Canisius fanbase that looks for any reason not to go to a game. (Can they even be called fans? “Fan” is short for “fanatic,” which Canisius students clearly are not.)

Niagara’s athletic director Ed McLaughlin was the happiest guy in WNY this week. He was out and about at all three games, shaking hands and celebrating with his teams while tweeting out one #victoryalert after another. He was the first person to congratulate his basketball coach Joe Mihalich after the press conference Wednesday and went right down to the bench after the final horn of Thursday’s hockey game. Life is good when you’re on top.

With four points this week, Niagara took a share of first place in Atlantic Hockey and has the offense and goaltending to make a serious playoff run. Green and Mason, Niagara’s prized basketball recruits, are just freshman but are already causing Canisius fits. Mihalich has a knack for getting his teams to peak at the right time every year, and if these freshmen continue to develop, Canisius may be looking up at Niagara in the standings for quite some time to come.

Niagara now has a commanding 14.5-6.5 lead in the Battle of the Bridge. While athletes on the smaller teams sometimes feel left out on campus, they’re the ones keeping Canisius afloat in the competition.

Men’s basketball, hockey, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball went a combined 0-9-1 against the Purple Eagles this year, with hockey earning half a point for the tie. A layup from Ashley Durham in the final second of the game gave the women’s basketball team a win over Niagara earlier this month, and the Griffs’ only other points are courtesy of men’s and women’s cross country.

If men’s and women’s swimming and diving can finish ahead of Niagara at the MAAC Championships this weekend, it would pull in four huge Battle points for Canisius.

Wouldn’t it be something if the big teams chipped in and bought the swimmers a little gift to say “thanks for saving our butts”? Don’t ask Niagara – the Purple Eagles haven’t needed any help.