ALBANY, N.Y. -- Loyola basketball coach Skip Prosser likes to quote profound thinkers, but he sounded like singer Andy Williams last week when he spoke of "the most wonderful time of the year."
Prosser wasn't talking about Christmas trees and mistletoe, but of epic fights for NCAA berths, something he learned to love during the seven trips Xavier made to the NCAA tournament when he was an assistant there.
At Loyola, March is usually a month to dread. In his first season as head coach, Prosser is giving the Greyhounds a taste of postseason success.
The fifth-place team in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Loyola picked an opportune time to play its best game of the season. The Greyhounds brushed aside top-seeded Canisius and its 16-game win streak, 88-70, last night at the Knickerbocker Arena.
They'll need a third upset in as many days to gain their first berth in the NCAA tournament since the program moved to Division I in 1981-82.
Loyola (16-12), in its first winning season since 1986-87, will play defending champion and second-seeded Manhattan, in tonight's championship game. Manhattan advanced with a 68-65 victory over Siena.
A crowd of more than 10,000 is expected tonight, when the Greyhounds make their first appearance ever on national
"Both times we played Manhattan in the regular season, they handledus," Prosser said. The Jaspers (19-9) won at Loyola by 95-80 on Feb. 13 and 84-71 on Feb. 23 in New York.
"Our kids have to believe we can beat them," Prosser said.
It's heady stuff for a program that reached an all-time low last year, when it sunk to 2-25 and then-coach Tom Schneider resigned in mid-season. Athletic director Joe Boylan served as interim coach, but he scored a major victory in April, when the school hired Prosser.
"Last night [Saturday's quarterfinal victory over St. Peter's in overtime] was a breakthrough, because it had been so long [six years] since we had won a postseason game," said Prosser. "This one is a breakthrough too, because now we're in the ultimate game in this conference."
If they can devise a game plan and follow it tonight the way they did last night, the Greyhounds will gain a date with a major-conference power in the NCAA tournament next week.
Last night, Loyola made Canisius (22-6) start its offense as far away from the basket as possible. When they had the ball, the Greyhounds went inside, to the tune of a season-best 56.1 percent (32 of 57) shooting performance from the field.
At all times, Loyola remembered Feb. 7, when it blew an 17-point halftime lead against Canisius at Reitz Arena and lost by two. Last night the Greyhounds led 34-17 after 15 minutes and 43-29 at the half, and the earlier game was a halftime topic in both dressing rooms.
It was raised again with 14:46 left. That's when Prosser called timeout after three straight Canisius three-pointers trimmed the gap to six. Loyola tightened its defense and went on an 8-2 spurt: Freshman Julian Tate scored on a follow; freshman Darius Johnson (11 points) dropped in a short jumper from the left baseline; and junior B. J. Pendleton (13 points and as many rebounds) effectively posted up on the right baseline on the next two possessions.
That made it 56-44 with 11:59 left, and the difference never got smaller than eight points.
At the core of the victory were the two mercurial seniors who missed last season: Guard Tracy Bergan had withdrawn from the college because of personal problems, and forward Michael Reese had been suspended for disciplinary reasons.
Reese, who said he "loves the rims here," scored 25 points for the second straight night and had 10 rebounds. Point guard Tracy Bergan had 18 points and, for the second time in 30 hours, added 10 assists. He played the first 25 minutes without a turnover.
Canisius had a 7-2 lead after three minutes, but the 6-foot-8 Reese tied it with a three-point play that lifted Loyola. Reese took a pass from Bergan and dunked over sophomore Michael Meeks, the all-MAAC center whom he outplayed.
Before making the free throw, Reese did a war dance in front of the Canisius bench, and the Greyhounds were off on a 21-8 run from which the Griffins never recovered.
"Tonight [the title game] depends upon which Loyola team shows up," said Bergan. "We've got to find a strength we can exploit like we did tonight."
Loyola played in the Northeast Conference title game in 1985, losing in overtime to Fairleigh Dickinson. It last made an NCAA tournament appearance in 1973, when it was in Division II.
Saturday Loyola 87, St. Peter's 80, OT
Canisius 59, Niagara 45
Manhattan 99, Iona 65
Siena 84, Fairfield 73
Loyola 88, Canisius 70
Manhattan 68, Siena 65
Loyola vs. Manhattan, 7:30