Saturday, February 12, 2011

Go West, Young Fan, For Friday Upsets

For a night everything was good in Western New York's version of MAAC basketball, at least for the teams from that region, even if Friday's results didn't occur near the land of the world's best chicken wings.

Niagara and Canisius, teams that had struggled through much of the early part of the season, got victories on the same night. And they weren't exactly beating lower-division teams to do so.

Both the Purple Eagles and the Golden Griffins went on the road Friday night for wins, knocking off teams playing for standings' position near the upper portion of the conference hierarchy.

Niagara went to Loyola for a 59-57 victory over the Greyhounds. Purple Eagles' guard Anthonly Nelson made a layup with about 15 seconds remaining to give the winners a one-point lead and freshman guard Marvin Jordan made one of two free throws with 10 seconds remaining for the final margin. Loyola missed two shots in the final 15 seconds.

Nelson had 20 points while adding to his nation-leading steal total with five.

(And, an editor's note here to league coaches: Do not forget about Mr. Nelson when casting your post-season first-team all-conference ballots. Nelson might be the most-versatile player in the MAAC, as well as one of its best. He already is the first player in Niagara history to produce 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 600 assists and 200 steals over a career. If you need further evidence, Nelson leads the entire country in steals this season.)

The victory was the second straight for Niagara, which previously won at Marist on Super Bowl Sunday.

Loyola fell to 8-6 in MAAC play and into fifth place. Fairfield is still first at 12-2, followed by Saint Peter's (10-4) and, then, Rider and Iona (each 9-5).

Rider had what looked like a nice opportunity to stay tied with St. Peter's for second place, but saw that slip away against resurgent Canisius, which has now won its last three games.

The Golden Griffins, at Rider, knocked off the Broncs, 67-65 when sophomore guard Gaby Belardo sank a jumper with 7.8 seconds remaining and a Rider 3-point attempt bounced off the rim at the buzzer.

(Editor's Note: Belardo's game-winner was his third of the season, and league coaches should not forget him, either, when filling out all-MAAC ballots, at least for a second-, or third-team mention.)

Canisius is now 7-7 overall, moving it into a tie for sixth with Siena (which lost at Iona on Friday night) as it attempts to earn a first-round bye in the MAAC's post-season tournament for teams that finish in the top six spots in the final standings.

Think that's not big news on the Buffalo school's campus?

Let's put sixth place, and an above-.500 overall record (the Griffs are now 13-11 overall) in historical perspective.

Canisius has been in the post-season tournament's play-in round in every season since 1998-99, when it finished 11-7 in conference play. That is an unprecedented 11-year run of play-in round appearances.

And, the Griffs haven't been over .500 in regular-season play since a 20-11 record (but a 9-9 conference mark, which had them in 7th place) in the 2000-01 season.

Friday's victory at Rider was the first for Canisius at the Lawrenceville, N.J., campus since the series began in 1932. Of course the teams didn't begin playing regularly until Rider joined the MAAC in 1997, but the Broncs were 14-0 against Canisius over the years in their home games in the series.

It all reinforces the well-used, but perfect-fitting cliche that "On any given night..." which bodes well for an exciting stretch run to the regular-season and an interesting post-season tournament.

"There's nobody in the league as good as we were the last three or four years and there's no one as good as Siena was the last three or four years," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich told the Buffalo News earlier in the week. "If that's going to upset [Fairfield coach] Ed Cooley or [Iona coach Tim Cluess], that's OK."

"There's some really good teams in this league, I think there's four teams in this league who everyone thinks is going to win it," Mihalich added.

And, Mihalich's counterpart in Western New York, Canisius coach Tom Parrotta, agrees.

"I think Joe makes a valid point," Parrotta said. "There's a lot of teams out there capable of winning."

In truth, there are probably seven or eight teams harboring semi-legitimate dreams of winning the post-season tournament.

And after Friday's upset road victories, two of those teams call Western New York their home base.

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