It’s unlikely anyone outside the Monmouth locker room thought the Hawks would be 7-1 at this point in the season. And Sunday was the latest example of how this team has showed up for every game, whether it’s against a high-major or struggling MAAC foe like Canisius.
The Hawks took command from the outset against the Griffins in winning their seventh straight, building a 25-point first-half lead en route to a 79-65 victory at the Koessler Athletic Center in Buffalo, New York.
Monmouth now rides a wave of momentum into Thursday’s clash with St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena, where a win over an area Big East team would be a seminal moment for the program.
In equaling its best start ever, the Hawks got 24 points from center Walker Miller. Guard George Papas finished with a double-double, scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, while guard Shavar Reynolds added 18 points. It marked the first sweep of the MAAC’s Western New York road trip in five years, improving to 2-0 in league play.
“I thought that was a great, hard-fought win,” Monmouth head coach King Rice said. “We’re leaving Western New York very, very happy.
“These guys just love the thought of playing basketball and they get along so well no one wants to be the weak link not showing up on gameday. And the cool part about is not only have they shown up on gameday, they’ve show up every day.”
While Monmouth looked sharp in building a 47-26 halftime lead, it was anything but as the second half got underway. The Hawks failed to score on their first eight possessions, including four turnovers, as the Griffins clawed back to within 49-41 on a jumper by Jordan Henderson with 13 minutes to play.
But the Hawks turned up the defensive pressure, with a Samuel Chaput steal leading to a Papas layup at the other end to increase the lead to 58-45 with 9:28 left.
Canisius got back within eight points on several occasions in the final five minutes, but never got closer. The Griffins were led by Armon Harried, who finished with 20 points.
"We brought it in the first half and in the second half, Canisius is a tough team," Papas said. "It’s always tough here and they came out and punched us in the face, but we just kept playing."
Monmouth opened up a quick 26-11 advantage, as Miller accounted for 12 of those points, while Papas had six, including a 4-point play in the opening minutes.
Here are three takeaways from the win:
1. Dominating defense
Monmouth entered the game ranked 25th nationally in field goal percentage defense, holding teams to just 37.3 percent. Once again they had moments when their pressure defense was stifling, particularly in the first half, limiting the Griffins to exactly 37.3 percent from the floor.
The Hawks are top-25 in 3-point field goal defense, limiting the Griffins to 26.9 percent.
In its previous three games, Monmouth held Princeton 18 second half points, Cincinnati to 23 points and Niagara to 22 points after halftime. This time they held the Griffins to just 26 points in the first half.
2. Miller time
You can’t overstate how important the arrival of Miller has been. And after having a tough shooting night at Niagara, the 6-11 graduate transfer from North Carolina hit 7-of-13 from the floor in scoring 24 points, while grabbing four rebounds.
“I wanted to set the tone early, I wanted to get in a groove,” Miller said. “I wanted to get back to what I do well and that is what I tried to do early in the game.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a little tight during games this yar and I felt like wanted to just calm down and get back to what I do.”
Having a presence in the paint has made a huge difference for Monmouth this year, allowing them to compete with everyone inside. Monmouth has not been outrebounded this season, holding a 36-28 advantage agaisnt Canisius.
And his incredible free throw shooting continued. Miller was 9-of-11 from the line, and remains among the national leaders in free throw percentage at 92.1, having made 35-of-38 for the season.
3. Opportunities await
Now things get very interesting.
Monmouth closes out its non-conference schedule with a challenging stretch, beginning with a pair of road games against high-major opponents in St. John’s and Pitt, who the Hawks face Sunday. The best win for Monmouth, with a 153 Kenpom ranking, was against Cincinnati, with a Kenpom of 72. St. John’s is ranked 63rd, while Pitt is 193.
“A totally different animal than everything we have seen so far this year,” Rice said. “They really come after you. We come after you, but they come after you, too.
“We will figure out the game plan and we’re going to go play Monmouth basketball and see how it goes.”
Added Papas: “I’m super excited. We’re going to be right back in the guy getting ready for St. John’s and it’s going to be an amazing game.”
Winning at St. John’s will be tough, although NJIT took the Red Storm to overtime before losing last week. Pitt is clearly a winnable game, with the Panthers losing to Ray Salnave and UMBC by 10 at home.
After that, Monmouth plays at Ivy League favorite Yale, before hosting Colgate (132 Kenpom) and Hofstra (133).
Monmouth basketball looks to win 7th straight Sunday vs. Canisius: 3 keys for Hawks
Quick show of hands. How many of you thought Monmouth would be 6-1 at this point in the season?
Right. That’s what I thought. But that’s where the surprising Hawks stand heading into Sunday’s game against Canisius (1 p.m.;ESPN3/MonmouthHawks.com) in Buffalo, New York, looking to sweep the MAAC’s Western New York trip for the first time since the Justin Robinson era.
The next task for a team that’s a basket away being unbeaten is avoiding a letdown against the Griffins, with just one Division I win, and extend its winning streak to seven heading into a Thursday night clash with St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena in New York City.
The Hawks can equal the best start in program history, a mark that's stood for 31 years. And a seven-game winning streak would be their fourth longest ever, equaling runs by the 1990-91 and 1995-96 teams. The program-record is 17-straight in 2016-17, with that team and the 2015-16 team each winning eight straight.
“While we’re excited for the six-game winning streak, it's a long season and we’re just taking it one game at a time," guard Shavar Reynolds said.
After a third straight comeback win Friday, rallying to beat Niagara, 57-49, Monmouth heads to the Koessler Athletic Center looking to defeat Canisius for the sixth straight time.
The Griffins (2-6, 0-1) come off a 74-68 home loss Friday to Fairfield, in which 6-5 junior guard Armon Harried led the way 18 points. Harried is averaging 12 points and 3.5 rebounds for the season. Jordan Henderson, a 6-5 senior guard, added 16 points.
For Monmouth, guard George Papas (17 ppg.) has connected on 26-of-57 (45.6 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc, which ranks in the top 40 nationally. Monmouth ranks 18th in the country in 3-point percentage at 39.8.
Papas tops four Hawks, all fifth-year seniors, averaging in double-figures, including Reynolds (15.4) and guard Marcus McClary (12.7), and center Walker Miller (13.3).
Here are three keys for Monmouth as it looks to win its seventh straight Sunday. And check back right here later Sunday afternoon for complete coverage:
We learn something new about this Monmouth team with each passing game. The latest is that the Hawks can play slow if they have to. They scored a season-low 57 points in beating a Niagara team that was simply not going to let them run, but gave up a season-low 49 points, including just 22 points in the second half.
Monmouth's won games scoring in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, scoring as many as 87 points. Canisius has given up 74 points or more in six games this season, and if Monmouth can get into the 80-point range it should head home with their first sweep of the Western New York series since the 2016-17 season.
2. Undervalued efforts
If there’s been an unsung hero for the Hawks this season it’s 6-8 senior forward Nikkei Rutty. He has battled defensively, grabbed rebounds and scored when opportunities present themselves. And he has a key matchup against Canisius leading scorer Malek Green, a 6-7 senior forward averaging 15.4 points and 6.9 rebounds, both team highs.
Rutty has 10 rebounds in each of the past two games, adding six points against Niagara. Monmouth has not been outrebounded this season, averaging 7.3 boards to go with 3.8 points. And by handling a lot of the dirty work inside, Rutty has helped Miller, a 6-11 newcomer, average 13.3 points and 7.6 rebounds.
3. Charity stripe success
Amid some impressive early-season numbers, perhaps the most stunning is connecting on 85 percent fromteh free throw line, which ranks No. 1 nationally among 350 Division I teams. And that precision has been a major factor in Monmouth's ability to put games away late when opponents are forced to foul.
Reynolds and Miller have combined to make an astonishing 55-of-57 free throws, or 96.5 percent, in their first season in the program. It’s been contagious. George Papas is at 87.5 percent (21-of-24) from the line, having averaged 79 percent last season.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Monmouth NJ basketball wins 7th straight, downing Canisius, 79-65