In the opening round of last year’s MAAC tournament, then-junior Phil Valenti poured in a career-high 33 points as the Golden Griffins survived a triple-overtime marathon against local rival Niagara. This time around, it was again Valenti who keyed the Griffs’ opening-round victory, a 77-73 win over Marist.
Now a senior, Valenti led all scorers with 23 points, with 17 of them in the second half and two key buckets in the final 1:10. He additionally filled the stat sheet with a team-leading seven rebounds along with four assists.
“You’re talking about perseverance,” head coach Reggie Witherspoon said of Valenti’s opening round performance. “He did a terrific job of that, played heavy minutes the second half and was great at the free throw line. That’s one thing that people probably don’t talk about as much. Obviously finished very well around the basket in the second half, but staying poised at the free throw line, that was really big for us.”
The forward accounted for nearly half of the team’s points from the charity stripe, as he knocked down seven of eight opportunities. The team as a whole shot 15-of-19 from the line.
Like many seniors, the realization that the end of his college career is suddenly within sight has fueled Valenti to make sure his senior season is his best yet.
“The whole season I’ve kind of been taking it a little extra because it is my last ride,” Valenti said. “I’ve had a little extra jump in my step. Halfway through the season I had a talk from a guy, he just put it in my head that you can’t take stuff for granted. You can’t take days off, practices off, games off. That really stuck in my head the rest of the year and really helped me.”
Valenti’s scoring average has actually decreased from 14.6 ppg a year ago to 14.2 this season, but he has been much more efficient in his senior campaign. As a junior, he shot 46.4% from the field, but has jumped closer to the .500 mark this season. In the current campaign, Valenti is shooting an astounding 49.7% from the floor.
As Canisius prepares to take on Saint Peter’s in the second game of a Friday night doubleheader at the Times Union Center in Albany, it will be Valenti leading the Griffs out of the tunnel and in the paint against the Peacocks’ stout defense.
A win would give Canisius its first MAAC tournament semifinal appearance since 2014, when they were led by league Player of the Year Billy Baron. Should the current group reach the next round, it would leave a lasting impact on the Golden Griffins’ program.
“It would be huge for the program,” Witherspoon added. “It would also be huge for guys like Phil and the other seniors to be able to say okay, we were part of a class that took another step. It’ll be a big challenge and one that we’re up for. We just have to come out and keep it locked in for 40 minutes.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.