Gameday: Canisius opens 2015-16 season at Hofstra, 7 p.m.

By Nick Veronica

The Griffs open the 2015-16 season tonight in Long Island, where they’ll meet former Niagara coach Joe Mihalich and CAA favorite Hofstra at 7 p.m.

Canisius Golden Griffins: 0-0 (18-15, 11-9 MAAC last year; played in CIT). KenPom ranking: 154.

Hofstra Pride: 0-0 (20-13, 10-8 CAA last year; played in CBI). KenPom ranking: 96.

Vegas line: Hofstra -9.5.

Long time, no see! What’d I miss?: The last time we saw Canisius, its third straight CollegeInsider.com Tournament run was coming to an end following a rowdy game at NJIT. Jim Baron was heated. Zach Lewis was still on the team.

New PG Malcolm McMillan

New PG Malcolm McMillan

Last year was positive for Canisius. Baron called it a rebuilding year in the summer and the league’s coaches picked the Griffs 10th out of 11 in the preseason poll. But come February, Baron’s “junkyard dogs” had clinched a bye in the first-round of the conference tournament, marking their third consecutive finish of fifth or better … which hadn’t happened since the John Beilein era.

“Jim Baron was billed as the Great Rebuilder when he was hired,” I wrote in my season wrap-up column from the MAAC Tournament, “and this season showed why.”

Here’s what’s happened since then:
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Niagara eliminates Canisius from MAAC Tournament

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Canisius’ nightmare season came to an uninspired end Friday night in the play-in round of the MAAC Tournament, where the Niagara Purple Eagles finished off their arch rival, 80-70, beating Canisius for the third time this season.

Any time Canisius made a push to get back into the game, Niagara answered with a big shot to protect its ten-point cushion in the second half. MAAC Rookie of the Year Juan’ya Green led Niagara with 20 points, including 13 in the first half, while Ameen Tanksley had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. All five Niagara starters scored in double-digits.

Harold Washington lived up to his title as a Second Team All-MAAC member, shifting through Niagara’s 2-3 zone for a game-high 24 points on 9-of-16 shooting, but missed six of his ten free throws. Guards Washington and Alshwan Hymes combined for nine of Canisius’ 16 turnovers.

The Griffs actually shot 52.1 percent in the game but missed free throws (7 for 17 on the night) and allowed Niagara to collect 18 offensive rebounds.

“That was the difference in the game,” Canisius coach Tom Parrotta said. “Over the course of 40 minutes, to give up that many offensive rebounds  … was ultimately our demise.

“In my mind, anytime you give up an offensive rebound, I just kind of look away and say ‘it’s a basket.’ And that seemed to happen obviously more than it should have tonight. … They beat us to loose basketballs, they got those offensive rebounds and made us pay for it.”

Gaby Belardo was 0-for-6 shooting in the first half but found his touch in the second half, finishing with 18 points. Hymes was 2-for-3 from behind the arc and had 16.

“Shooting 52 percent, most teams would win,” Hymes said. “I think we didn’t take care of the ball enough throughout the game. We gave them a lot of shots that we shouldn’t have. We just didn’t have a good feel for the game.”

A 13-2 run midway through the first half gave Canisius its only lead of the game. It got as close as seven points in the second half but Niagara wouldn’t let its rival creep any closer. Niagara led 33-26 and halftime and Canisius finished the year 0-19 when trailing at the break.

The Griffs ended the year with a 5-25 record and only one victory against a conference team. The only loss for next season is scarcely-used forward Marial Dhal, the tallest player ever to play in the MAAC (7-foot-3), while forwards Freddy Asprilla and Jordan Heath as well as guard Isaac Sosa all become eligible. All three were forced to sit out this season after transferring to Canisius.

Parrotta has one year left on his contract. Through six years on the job, his record as Canisius coach is 64-121 and this season is his second time with 25 losses. What he has going for him is the academic side — all seniors in his program graduate with their master’s degrees in four years.

David Santiago did not make the trip to the tournament due to a violation of team rules. The athletic department said his violation was a separate incident from the one that kept Melissa Gardner of the women’s team back in Buffalo.

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.

Niagara sneaks past Canisius in OT; Griffs drop 10th straight

LEWISTON — For as disappointing as this season has been for the Canisius Golden Griffins, they were in a position Wednesday night to make it all go away.

Junior Alshwan Hymes was the Griff who deserved to take the final shot Wednesday night at the Gallagher Center.

A win over rival Niagara on its home court wouldn’t erase Canisius’ 4-21 record, wouldn’t make the team’s injuries heal any faster and wouldn’t make the blowout losses any less embarrassing, but for one night, everything would have been okay.

Alshwan Hymes stepped to the free-throw line with 6.7 seconds left in regulation and calmly hit both shots to tie the game at 55 and send his Griffs to overtime. Down by three points with the clock running out in the overtime period, Hymes again had the ball, and the game, in his hands.

After Gaby Belardo made a nice pass to find Hymes wide open, he set his feet, jumped, and released a clean look that would have sent the game to a second overtime. This time, Hymes’ shot hit the rim and fell back toward the floor. Belardo collected the rebound and ran behind the arc for a desperation attempt, but it was off the mark and Niagara claimed a 60-57 win.

“The ball was in our hands, on our terms, on the very last possession,” Canisius coach Tom Parrotta said. “We had a couple of shots at it. Gaby missed a layup, which he knows he needs to make the next time he’s in that position, but he turned around and made a great pass to ‘Shwan — who else do you want standing there with his feet set taking a three to send it to double overtime?”

“We needed three points, wide open three-pointer, that’s a shot I got to make,” Hymes said.

Canisius’ hopes had to come down to Hymes, who was the only Griff who could have been remotely happy with his offensive performance. He kept Canisius in the game with five three-pointers and finished with 19 points, more than twice as many as any teammate. Belardo and Harold Washington combined went 3-for-23 and scored 14 points, most of which coming from the free-throw line.

Neither team managed a field goal in overtime, with Niagara going 0-for-4 and Canisius going 0-for-8. The game was decided by five Niagara free throws in the extra session, all hit by Antoine Mason, who finished with a game-high 21 points. MAAC Rookie of the Year candidate Juan’ya Green had 16 points and five assists while knocking down 4 of 9 three-point attempts.

Shooting issues weren’t limited to overtime. Only 15 of the 59 three-point attempts in the game went in, just over 25 percent (Canisius 8 for 30, Niagara 7 for 29).

“It certainly wasn’t a beautiful thing,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. “It wasn’t beautiful, it wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day, we won. Winners find a way to win.”

The key point of the game in regulation came when Josiah Heath converted the old-school three-point play – a basket and a foul shot – to tie the score at 41 with 12:23 to go. Neither team could score over the next three minutes as tension grew with possession of the game in the balance.

Franklin Milian hit a free throw with 9:11 left to give Canisius its first lead of the night and Hymes scored from distance later to make it a 7-0 run that put the visitors ahead 45-41. But Niagara answered with a 10-0 run of its own to retake a lead Canisius wouldn’t match until Hymes’ free throw and the end of regulation.

Heath, a freshman, was dominant on the glass with 14 rebounds and came up with a block and a steal on consecutive critical possessions in overtime.

It’s been over a decade since Canisius last beat Niagara at the Gallagher Center, though the last two games have come down to the final play. In last year’s meeting, Niagara won on a goaltending call at the buzzer, and Wednesday night took overtime before the Purple Eagles walked off victorious. Through 167 all-time meetings between the two schools, 18 games have gone to overtime, with each side winning nine apiece.

Canisius taken to school by Niagara underclassmen

Gaby Belardo had the hot hand early on.

Out-played. Out-hustled. Out-teamworked. Out-coached.

Tom Parrotta and the Canisius basketball team were out-everythinged Thursday night in an embarrassing 75-56 loss on their home court to none other than rival Niagara, dropping Parrotta to 3-8 all-time versus the Purple Eagles.

Antoine Mason scored 22 points and Juan’ya Green captained the floor with 11 assists as Niagara’s young guns showed a sellout crowd of 2,196 Blue and Gold basketball fans what a promising group of recruits looks like.

Canisius led early but limped to the finish line.

“Gaby [Belardo] came out and started on fire, then we kind of leveled off and then we just labored,” Parrotta said. “We labored to score. We’re trying to have our defense keep us in games but until we figure out ways to score points from the guys who need to score points, we’re going to find ourselves in this type of position.

“We have some holes to fill, obviously.”

Canisius junior guard Gaby Belardo started the game emotionally charged, dedicating his performance to his late grandfather, who passed away earlier this week. Belardo opened the scoring with a layup and followed it with a 3-pointer that was deep from NBA standards.

He assisted Chris Manhertz’s jumper on the next possession and then came back with another bucket from 3-point range. After a Niagara timeout, he cut through the lane and put up an acrobatic reverse layup, which circled the rim and fell in.

It looked like this could be the start of one of those Canisius-Niagara rivalry performances where one player takes his game to another level and steals the show. Three minutes and 13 seconds into the game, Belardo already 10 points and the Griffs led 12-4.

Then they forgot to play the rest of the half.

Marvin Jordan came off the bench for Niagara and turned the tide with 12 straight points – four consecutive 3-pointers – during a 12-minute stretch of basketball when Niagara tripled Canisius, 33-11.

A small burst at the end of the half brought the Griffs back within 10 at the break, 37-27, but catch-up is not a good game for a team to play when it came into the contest 0-10 this year when trailing at the break or for a coach who came in 6-52 in his career when losing at halftime of conference games.

Canisius made things interesting in the second half, as it tends to, cutting it to a two-possession game at 58-53 with 5:45 to go. But after spending themselves to close the gap, the Griffs – whose bench played only 18 minutes and was outscored by Niagara’s, 25-0 – ran out of gas.

Junior guard Alshwan Hymes led Canisius on offense with 20 points and could be found instructing younger players during breaks in the action. He usually remains stoic at press conferences, but Thursday night he spoke out at length about one of his team’s overarching problems.

“I think that’s something that shows up in a lot of our games: We get down early by a lot of points and we end up coming back, getting it to single digits, and then it comes down to a string of plays [where] we just can’t convert on the offensive end and can’t get stops on the defensive end and it goes right back,” he said. “By that time it’s too late. Those strings where we get the score down to single digits and we start coming back, people can see how good of a team we can be. Once we can put 40 minutes of that together, we’ll be at the top of this league.”

The Griffs don’t even have the inexperience excuse to use after this game. They got beat by a group of underclassmen. Niagara started one junior, one sophomore and three freshmen. Jordan, a sophomore, came off the bench for his big night. Seniors played only three minutes in the entire game, with Canisius’ Marial Dhal logging all 180 seconds. The Griffs’ first-year players, including transfers, were 3-for-19 from the field for 10 points. Niagara’s freshmen went 18-of-38 for 48.

Parrotta is now 3-8 in his career vs. Niagara.

Junior transfer Harold Washington, the Griffs’ leading scorer who was recruited by Mihalich long before he heard of Canisius College, had another night to forget. He was shut out for the first three-quarters of the game and finished with six points on 2-of-10 shooting. Outside of Hymes, Manhertz had the only other respectable night for Canisius, finishing with a double-double of 13 points and 15 rebounds, including nine of the offensive end.

Belardo started the game red hot, going 4-for-4 for 10 points in the first 200 seconds of the game, but went 0-for-12 with three free throws in the 2,220 seconds that followed.

“This game was probably one of the most important games of my life,” Belardo said. “It was really emotional and it was really important to me. I really wanted to get this win but unfortunately it didn’t go that way.”

Belardo closed by saying that his Griffs will return the favor on Niagara’s home court later in the year. They’ll have their work cut out for them – the teams meet again in the Gallagher Center in 26 days, a building Canisius hasn’t won in since 2002.

Bench production has been a struggle for Canisius all season, but the climb got even steeper Thursday when redshirt sophomore Reggie Groves was unable to play. He has been limited all season long by an arthritic knee that has been through three surgeries, but Parrotta said after the game Groves tweaked it further in the week leading up to the game.

Groves switched between a hard brace and a soft brace earlier in the season but settled on the soft brace for comfort. He participated in warm-ups Thursday but Parrotta used freshman Franklin Milian in his place.