BUFFALO — Breon Harris had never been inside Western New York’s biggest arena before the Daemen men’s basketball team practiced here Friday.
The Niagara Falls native said it will be a “once in a lifetime opportunity” when the Wildcats play in Saturday’s doubleheader at KeyBank Center.
Opening up for the annual Little 3 matchup between Canisius and St. Bonaventure, Daemen will tip-off against Wilmington at noon in the latest showcase event for program coming off its first NCAA Division II tournament appearance and currently ranked No. 17 nationally.
“I came here for the March Madness games a couple years ago sitting right over there,” said Ryan Bradley, the former Wilson standout who grew up in Niagara Falls and is now in his redshirt freshman season at Daemen. “Now, being able to play here will be a great memory. But at the end of the day, it’s just another game and we need to come out here and execute and play like we normally do.”
“The coach in me wants to treat it like just another game, but it’s not,” Daemen coach Mike MacDonald said. “This is an awesome opportunity for our guys. It’s a big deal for them to play in this arena. We are lucky and very thankful to be a part of it.”
The Wildcats normally play their home games inside the 400-seat Lumsden gymnasium in the same campus building that house’s the college library.
But they have experience playing in bigger arenas. Daemen opened the season with exhibition games at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena and the Carrier Dome in Syracuse before playing the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at St. Joseph Civic Arena (3,800 seats) in Missouri.
“The thing we try to sell when we recruit kids is that you are going to get opportunities you might not get at other places,” MacDonald said. “Look at where we’ve been the last month.”
MacDonald hopes that some local fans coming downtown to watch Canisius play St. Bonaventure will get a glimpse of Daemen and decide to check out another game at Lumsden.
“We want to show that Division II is not that different than Division I,” MacDonald said. “We might not be quite as tall at certain spots but there is very good basketball played at this level.”
Coaching in the area’s largest indoor venue won’t be a new experience for MacDonald. He is the all-time winningest coach in arena history, going 17-11 during is tenure coaching Canisius from 1997 to 2006. But MacDonald is more interested in making new memories than reliving old ones.
“I want it to be a cool and memorable experience for our guys instead of nostalgic for me,” he said.
“Our goal every time we walk on the court is to prove we can play with anybody in the country,” Bradley said.
Daemen is off to a 6-1 start with its only loss coming against No. 1 Northwest Missouri State. Last week, the Wildcats beat No. 4 West Liberty at Lumsden.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum coming in and I think this will be another spark for us,” Harris said. “Being in Buffalo, putting on for the city and the 716, hopefully we can put Daemen basketball on the map.”
Andrew Sischo, a 6-foot-9-inch redshirt junior, has led the way averaging 25.4 points and 14.7 rebounds while making more than 70 percent of his shots. He’s been named D-II national player of the week twice by the United States Basketball Writers Association.
Harris has averaged 10.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 assists through the first seven games of his senior season. Bradley is averaging 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.7 minutes off the bench.
“We are doing real well this year and it’s nice to see all of the hard work that the guys who have been here before us put into building this program up get rewarded,” Sischo said. “It’ll be nice to showcase that in a big arena. Hopefully people know our name and we can show them that we are getting bigger and stronger every year.”