Friday, February 14, 2014

Niagara-Canisius Rivalry Lives Up To Reputation

Big Bird and Underdog were in the crowd. So was Abraham Lincoln, Chris Noth and Justin Bieber.

At least large posters of those celebrities, and a few others, were being used as a potential distraction by Niagara's student section behind one basket when Canisius took foul shots there.

And, then, there were more than a few hand-made signs, including one that read "Win or lose, at least we don't go to Canisius."

It was all evidence of the intensity and enthusiasm not often seen for MAAC games.

It was all just part of the trappings that made the environment so special in one of the two annual meetings of arguably the best rivalry in the MAAC, if not one of the most-heated mid-major matchups in the east and beyond.

A national television audience also got a glimpse at the emotions on display in the series, which had its 176th meeting, dating back to the 1905-06 season.

Friday's was played at the 63-year old Taps Gallagher Center, a smallish on-campus facility that epitomizes the term "bandbox."

One side of the gym only has eight rows of seating, and the ceiling is so low that the banners commemorating Niagara's NIT and NCAA appearances droop almost low enough to brush the heads of those sitting in the upper-level seats.

Those on floor level are literally close enough to reach out and touch the action without much of a stretch.

One MAAC official claimed the meetings to be the conference's strongest rivalry, and it was easy to see why, starting with a noise level throughout most of the proceedings that made conversation all but impossible to conduct.

We've witnessed Army-Navy football games and Siena-UAlbany basketball games. We'll admit, now that Niagara-Canisius men's basketball is as good as it gets, mostly because of the tight quarters of both schools' small gymnasius, the proximity of fans to competitors and the clearly fervent, loud but almost universally positive fan involvement.

It was exactly what would be expected of two long-operating basketball programs separated by about 20 miles and connected for more than 100 years by an unofficial affiliation known in Western New York first as the "Little Three" (along with St. Bonaventure) and, in recent years, the "Big Four" (since UBuffalo became a Division I program).

Friday was a night for Canisius to celebrate a hard-fought victory (is there any other in this rivalry?) that saw the Golden Griffins' standout senior guard Billy Baron deliver a 34-point, six-rebound, five-assist effort and backcourt mate Chris Perez score four points down the stretch that turned a 63-61 Niagara advantage into a 65-63 edge for Canisius.

And, then, Perez, with some help, made a key defensive stop on the Purple Eagles' Antoine Mason, whose 26.3 points per game average led everyone nationally entering the contest (Mason was held to 17 on Friday).

When Canisius secured the rebound, Niagara was forced to foul in the closing seconds and Baron went a perfect 6-for-6 from the charity stripe in the final 28 seconds to secure the victory.

Canisius had also won the first meeting of the teams earlier this season, so Friday's outcome completed a season sweep of its local rival for the first time since the 1994-95 season.

"This is a huge game," said Canisius coach Jim Baron. "You look up at the banners here (honoring retired numbers for) Hubie Brown, Frank Layden, Larry Costello ... it's great for this area to have these games. This kind of atmosphere is special."

Baron has experienced the atmosphere as much as any individual, if not moreso.

Baron was 13-4 in Little Three rivalry games against Canisius and Niagara during his own playing days at St. Bonaventure (1973-77), and 17-10 as the Bonnies' head coach in games with the two Buffalo-area programs.

Baron is now in his second season at the helm at Canisius and is 3-1 in contests against Niagara.

"Is this the biggest rivalry? Well, you've got to throw St. Bonaventure in there, too, as part of the whole Little Three," added Baron. "But, it's most definitely a great rivalry and it's great for the kids to feel it."

Baron has experienced it both as a coach and as a player.

Which side of that has he enjoyed most?

"Well, when you're a player ... you have more control of things on the court," he admitted.

And, now, for the past two seasons his youngest son has had that on-court player control.

"People around our campus were definitely fired up for this ... it's the `Battle of the Bridge,' " said Billy Baron. "Kids around campus who usually don't say anything to me were coming up to me all week saying good luck against Niagara. We were trying to deliver for them, too, and we did."

The historical significance of the rivalry is not lost on the younger Baron, maybe because he grew up in a household well steeped with the tradition of Western New York basketball.

"You try to enjoy the moment," he said. "Now, I can live the rest of my life knowing I got them twice this season. We knew Canisius hadn't swept the series in nearly 20 years, so that means a lot for our program to get that ... and, now, we've won three in a row against them (dating back to the second meeting a year ago at Niagara when Baron had 34 points).

"You try to enjoy these moments becuase you only get 80 minutes to play against those guys all year. It goes by quickly, so it's great to get this win."

The clear dejection from the Niagara side of things spoke equal volumes about the significance of the meeting of the two little schools with hitorical programs.

"It's my first year, so I'm not really familiar with the rivalry," said Niagara coach Chris Casey, whos answered questions with the brevity of dejection.

"There's a pride factor," admitted Mason. "It's a game, in the days leading up to it, that everyone wants to talk about. And, we came up short."

No one who has experienced a Canisius-Niagara game, though, would ever claim his historical rivalry has ever come up short on emotions, enthusiasm and intensity.

It is what college basketball is meant to be.

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