Siena coach: Tourney is no time for mind games

Siena women’s basketball coach Ali Jaques called her team an enigma.
Siena women's basketball coach Ali Jaques reacts to a call during a game against Monmouth earlier this year.
Siena women's basketball coach Ali Jaques reacts to a call during a game against Monmouth earlier this year.

Siena women’s basketball coach Ali Jaques called her team an enigma.

You could say the same for the inscrutable field for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, which begins today at the Times Union Center.

One thing is clear: Marist’s domination of this conference, after winning the tournament 10 times in 11 years from 2004-2014, is over.

The Saints (10-10, 13-17) drew the No. 7 seed and will play No. 10 Rider at 11:30 a.m. today, with No. 2 Iona waiting for the winner. Quinnipiac (17-3, 22-7) is the top seed.

It used to be as close to automatic as a tournament could be, that the Brian Giorgis-coached Red Foxes would advance to the NCAA tourn­ament. Marist is still formid­able, but the automatic part is out the window now, which gives every team — even an enigmatic one — hope for a deep run in the conference tournament.

“I think back to our coaches’ meeting back in the fall where everybody said it’s anybody’s game,” Jaques said on Monday. “And I think that’s true about our team, too. I like our matchups moving forward. I thought, other than [against] Marist, we played our best 40 minutes of basketball down at Iona. Even though we lost, we were right there.”

Jaques was referring to a 63-51 loss in New Rochelle on Feb. 19, followed six days later by Siena’s first win over Marist after 25 straight losses. Then the enigma reared its ugly head in the form of an awful head-scratching loss to Niagara (5-15, 7-22) on Senior Day to close the regular season last Saturday.

It’s a strange way to head into a tournament, with equal parts confidence and bewilderment.

But the regular season is over now, which means the Saints need to start winning, and keep winning.

“The next time you lose, we’re talking about end-of-year meetings and exit interviews,” Jaques said. “So we’ll see what kind of sense of urgency we have.

“I don’t know with this group. Every time I tell them they’ve done something good, they relax. They’re young, so if you don’t give them enough positive reinforcement, they’ll start thinking they’re bad. So . . . I’m done with mind games. We’ve got to beat Rider, that’s all that matters.”

Siena split two games with the Broncs in January, winning at home 66-45 and losing in Lawrenceville, N.J., 70-58.

That further illustrates the inconsistency of the Saints, who enjoyed a six-game winning streak at the beginning of the year and a six-game losing streak in February.

“Against Rider, we played maybe one of our better games the first time, and the second time we laid an egg,” Jaques said. “We’ll see which team of ours shows up. Hopefully, it’s the one that’s ready to go.”

The bad news for the field is that the top two seeds are hitting their stride at the right time.

Iona has won 10 of its last 12, and Quinnipiac has won 17 straight, including a sweep of the Gaels by scores of 62-61 and 69-53.

Those two and 16-13 Fairfield are the only teams bringing winning overall records into the tournament.

“I like the way we finished out the season,” Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri said. “The last four games were big. There was a lot riding on all of them, and we handled the pressure to get the 1 seed.”

“We’ve come a long way from an 0-4 start,” Iona coach Billi Godsey said. “I’m proud of how we found our identity and put it all together.

“I think everybody is ready to turn up their level of play. I’ve seen a lot of teams step up lately. It’ll be an interesting tournament.”

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