The crowd stood and roared as Fran McCaffery waited on the sideline with his arms open.
Tay Fisher walked toward his coach, accepted a bear hug and was lifted off the ground.
For most of the night, it was the 5-foot-9 Fisher who picked up everyone else.
On Monday, the senior from Kingston turned 22 years old, played 22 minutes and fell a missed free throw short of scoring 22 points to propel Siena to a 74-53 victory over Rider in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship game at the Times Union Center.
With the win, the Saints clinched their first NCAA tournament berth since 2002, and the fourth since the school went to Division I.
Fisher was the only holdover from a class that transferred to other schools. A former starter who came off the bench this season as a three-point specialist, the only senior on the team made six of 10 three-pointers, including four in the first half as the Saints (22-10) took a 41-30 lead.
Siena never let the Broncs get back in the game in the second half.
“I didn’t know I was going to cry on Senior Night, but tonight, I knew I was going to cry whether we lost or won,” Fisher said. “This is all happiness right here. It’s so emotional. My family is here, my friends are here, the community’s here, it really couldn’t have gone any better.
“It really couldn’t have been any better than it is right now.”
The crowd of 9,279 started chanting “Ta-ay Fish-er” after he made his last shot, a three-pointer on a pass from tournament MVP Kenny Hasbrouck that gave the Saints a 64-45 lead with 7:31 left.
With the final seconds winding down, Siena students in green afro wigs and yellow T-shirts mobbed the court, carrying stars like Hasbrouck and Edwin Ubiles around the floor.
In the middle of the maelstrom, Fisher accepted slaps on the back, high-fives and handshakes from everyone.
The performance was particularly gratifying for Fisher because he hadn’t been much of a factor in the Saints’ quarterfinal and semifinal victories, making just one of seven threes.
“Last night, after the [semifinal] game, I told him, ‘Tomorrow night’s your night.’ ” McCaffery said. “Because I knew he felt bad about his performance yesterday. I said, ‘It’s OK, because tomorrow night, it’s all you.’
“When he came off the court, he said, ‘Coach, you were right. You called it.’ ”
“I was just happy that I was able to be on today, because the last two games, I wasn’t on,” Fisher said. “We still won. I told the team, if I get on, we’re going to blow the team out.”
The Saints might not have been in position to blow out the injury-depleted Broncs if they hadn’t started the game with the same stifling press they used to beat Loyola in the semis.
Siena held MAAC player of the year Jason Thompson, who had 49 points and 45 rebounds in two regular-season games against the Saints, in check as well as could be hoped for.
The 6-11 center didn’t take a shot until 4:22 into the game, and it was a three-pointer that put the Broncs ahead, 10-9. He finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds, but never really got anything going for an extended period.
He was mostly guarded by
Scotia native Josh Duell, who caught a Thompson elbow in the face early in the second half, and was sporting a pinkish bulge on his right temple that moved up and down every time he smiled after the game.
“I got hit in the mouth, the eye. It doesn’t matter now. It doesn’t hurt at all,” he said. “We kind of took them out of their game, and we wanted to keep Jason Thompson off the block, because he is an NBA player.
“You have to limit his touches. He’s a guy who’s capable of putting up 35 points and 25 rebounds a night. I know he’s going to have a great future, but it just feels good to get this win against a great team.”
“Tonight, the mental toughness was incredible,” McCaffery said. “We got a lead, and we kept the defensive intensity up, and that’s what you have to do. So now you’re up 11, and you get it to 18, 20, 24, instead of going the other way and having to make free throws.”
“They didn’t let us get into the rhythm we like,” Thompson said. “Give credit to their defense.”
The game was tight until Fisher came into the contest midway through the first half.
He nestled a three into the net from the left corner to make it 16-15, made one from the right wing on a pass from Ronald Moore for a 25-22 lead, shot one over Thompson to make it 31-24 and made his fourth to give the Saints a 34-26 lead.
Thompson tried to answer that shot with a three, but it missed
everything long, went right into Fisher’s hands and Fisher was fouled at the other end, attempting another three.
He made all of his free throws to give Siena a 37-26 lead with 3:31 left. Averaging 7.3 points per game this season, he scored 15 points in first half.
“It’s a birthday and a championship game, that’s a lot of pressure,” Hasbrouck said. “That says a lot about Tay Fisher. He’s a great player, and a great person.
“”He’s the one guy that stuck it out from that class,” McCaffery said. “And to have him be up there, cutting the nets down and get an all-tournament trophy and a championship watch and a chance to go to the NCAA tournament, there’s no better feeling as a coach, to have someone of that kind of character to have that kind of experience.”
“Six minutes, seven minutes, it doesn’t matter to me, I’m going to be out there doing as much as I can,” Fisher said. “But tonight was just a great night. Coach kept coming to me, my team kept cheering for me, they told me to stay confident, and it just worked out great.”
Rider trailed by nine, 54-45, with 10:19 left, but the Saints scored the next 11 points, including two threes by Fisher.
“At halftime, I thought the game was over,” Hasbrouck said. “If we let up a little bit, I think they would’ve come back and beat us. But since we didn’t let up at all, I knew we were going to put the game away.”
Rider (23-10), missing all-MAAC second-teamer Ryan Thompson with a concussion, expects to
receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
“The team that won 23 wasn’t on the floor tonight,” Broncs head coach Tommy Dempsey said. “Last night, we battled through it, but
tonight, we didn’t. Siena played great defense. They had us rattled. They made one big shot after another.
“I think the NIT has to showcase a guy of Jason’s talent. Send us anywhere. Send us into a big venue where we can showcase Jason’s talent.”
J. Thompson 10-17 0-3 22, Ringgold
4-6 0-2 8, Griffin 2-2 0-0 5, Johnson 0-1 0-0 0,
H. Mansell 2-7 0-0 5, Warner 1-8 0-0 3, Green 2-4 0-0 4, Hickman 0-0 0-0 0, P. Mansell 0-4 0-0 0, Robinson 2-5 2-2 6, Vosilla 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 23-54 2-7 53.
Duell 2-5 0-0 5, Moore 2-8 0-0 4, Franklin 3-5 4-5 10, Ubiles 7-13 0-0 15, Hasbrouck 7-12 2-3 17, De La Rosa 1-1 0-0 2, Fisher 6-10 3-4 21, Jackson 0-0 0-0 0, Carr 0-0 0-0 0, Rossiter 0-0 0-0 0, Magee 0-0 0-0 0, Harris 0-0 0-0 0, Priestley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 28-54 9-12 74.
Halftime: Siena 41, Rider 30. Three-point goals: Rider 5-19 (J. Thompson 2-3, Griffin 1-1, Johnson 0-1, H. Mansell 1-3, Warner
1-6, P. Mansell 0-4, Robinson 0-1). Rebounds: Rider 33 (J. Thompson 12); Siena 28 (Fisher 5). Assists: Rider 8 (H. Mansell 3); Siena 15 (Moore, Hasbrouck 4). Total fouls: Rider 11; Siena 11. Attendance: 9,279.