Let it be known that Canisius is for real. The Golden Griffins marched into New Rochelle Sunday afternoon and accomplished something that had only been done once before: swept the regular season series from Tim Cluess’ Iona Gaels.
With both teams entering at 6-1 in MAAC play and sole possession of first place on the line, Canisius outshot the Gaels 15-7 from beyond the arc en route to an 84-82 victory. It is the first time Canisius has been 7-1 in league play since the 1996-97 season, current Michigan head coach John Beilein’s last at the helm.
Sophomore Isaiah Reese led all scorers with 21 points, and has now finished above the 20-point threshold in three consecutive games. The Miami native currently leads Canisius with 16.5 ppg and is officially in the mix for MAAC Player of the Year honors after being snubbed from the preseason all-league teams.
Four other Griffs joined Reese in double figures, led by 18 from redshirt senior Jermaine Crumpton. Jibreel Faulkner put in a career-high 13 on 5-7 shooting while Malik Johnson and Takal Molson added 12 and 10 respectively with a combined 14 assists.
“It feels good, just shows that hard work pays off,” Crumpton said of his team’s early success. “We’ve got a great group of guys. We come in, we work, and to see that hard work pay off is unbelievable. Me being a senior, I’m just trying to be the leader this team needs and the guy the freshmen and younger guys can look up to.”
Canisius got the better of Iona 85-78 in Buffalo on New Year’s Eve behind 24 points from Crumpton. It marks the first time since 2006-07 the Golden Griffins have swept the season series from Iona. Last season’s Monmouth squad which finished 18-2 in league play had been the only other team to sweep the regular season series from Cluess’ Gaels.
A 14-0 run midway through the first half gave Canisius a double-digit advantage and a lead it would hold throughout the period. Schadrac Casimir knotted the score at 44 in the opening minute of the second half, then gave the Gaels the lead with 14:55 remaining, but Canisius immediately responded with a 6-0 spurt to regain the lead for good.
Crumpton’s three-pointer with 5:14 remaining put the Griffs up by 10, but the Gaels responded with a frenzied 8-0 run to turn the heat up with 2:36 remaining. After a pair of empty possessions, Malik Johnson fed an alley-oop pass to Faulker, who stuffed it home to give the Griffs just enough breathing room to survive Iona’s rally.
“We’ve used it on occasion, but we had to use some timeouts earlier,” head coach Reggie Witherspoon said of the play, which he called from the bench. “So now we have this play, but we don’t have a timeout to set it up. We’ve done it in practice a lot, but credit the guys for having enough poise to get it set up and then to execute it.”
The Golden Griffins remain one of the most proficient passing teams in the nation, and their most recent road trip was a perfect demonstration of unselfishness and poise. Canisius converted 25 assists with just six turnovers against Iona, two days after posting 22 assists and nine turnovers at Manhattan.
The Griffs have now committed fewer than 10 turnovers in half of their league games and rank second to only rival Niagara in offensive turnover percentage, according to Kenpom.com.
“Against a team like this, those turnovers turn into touchdowns,” Witherspoon said. “You have to really limit them, and we did a pretty good job of that today.”
Canisius has now won four in a row and nine of its last 10 overall. That wave of success is certainly fun to ride, but with it comes a change in the tone of games down the stretch. Despite Canisius’ great early play, Witherspoon remains focused on continued improvement as the season wears on.
“What happens now though, every time you go somewhere everybody is excited to see you,” Witherspoon said of the stretch run. “It’s good obviously, but we have a pretty long way to go. It’s not even February, but we’d rather be in this situation than any other spot. What it says is we have something to build on.”
The Golden Griffins return home for the first of two meetings against Niagara this season. With a raucous environment sure to follow Canisius wherever it goes this season, a rivalry game seems the perfect place to start.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.