They almost did it.
With only six players available, missing three of their previous game’s starters and playing for the first time in two dozen days, the Saints nearly pulled it off.
Still, despite the obviously apparent moral victory there to take, Siena women’s basketball head coach Ali Jaques wanted to make something clear before claiming it on a memorable Wednesday night for her program.
“So,” Jaques said after her team’s 61-60 loss against Monmouth, “we hate losing. We hate losing more than we like winning. But I couldn’t be more proud of a team tonight and what they displayed, and their desire, and their heart and their toughness.”
Playing Wednesday at OceanFirst Bank Center in West Long Branch, New Jersey, Siena refused to quit. Monmouth built up a 15-point lead in the first half against a group of Saints that elected to play a game it didn’t have to under MAAC guidelines — a team needs eight available scholarship players to necessitate playing — but Jaques’ crew kept working to find a way to compete.
After halftime against Monmouth (1-4 MAAC, 1-8 overall), Siena (2-3, 2-3) found it. Down a dozen points at intermission, Siena pulled within three heading into the fourth quarter. In that final period, the Saints continued to battle, but a Monmouth basket with 2.2 seconds to go put the Hawks ahead for good in a fourth quarter that included 10 lead changes.
“Everybody showed Siena heart and toughness, and our grit, in what they did and how they performed tonight,” Jaques said in a post-game teleconference. “And I couldn’t be more proud of that.”
Then, again, the coach reminded: “We don’t like to lose.”
But even playing against a previously winless Monmouth club that had a stretch during this pandemic-ravaged season that saw it go more than a month without playing, Siena sure was an underdog Wednesday night.
Siena could only compete Wednesday utilizing players and coaches that had previously tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but had been fully cleared to return to team activities, after more positive COVID-19 test results were discovered last Friday among the program’s Tier 1 personnel.
So Siena headed into Wednesday’s game with 10 total people. The night’s starters for Siena were graduate student Isis Young, senior Rayshel Brown, junior Margo Peterson, sophomore Ashley Williamson and freshman Chantell Gonzalez, while sophomore Sevval Istanbulluoglu came off the team’s bench as the lone reserve. Coaching Siena for the night was just Jaques and assistant coach Joe Haigh, while senior Selena Philoxy — a transfer unable to play — was also on the team’s bench for the game, plus assistant athletic trainer Brian McElroy.
Prior to Wednesday’s game, Williamson had not played this season and the 6-foot-8 Gonzalez — who is both the tallest player in Siena program history and this season in the MAAC — had logged two minutes.
Siena had its top-three leading scorers on the season in Brown, Peterson and Young for the game, but was missing three of its top-five rebounders — and it showed, as Monmouth out-rebounded Siena 49-30, a total that included the Saints losing the battle 21-19 on their own defensive glass.
“I knew that was going to be a problem with the [players we had], and we’ve just got to become better rebounders,” Jaques said.
Siena, though, didn’t let all of Monmouth’s extended possessions keep it from making a spirited attempt at pulling out an unlikely win. Williamson’s first basket of the season, a 3-pointer, gave Siena a 47-46 lead with 6:31 to go in the final quarter, then her second basket — another 3 — had Siena up 50-48 just more than a minute later. Young scored Siena’s next eight points, the last of them putting the Saints ahead 58-57 with 1:53 to go.
After Monmouth, again, moved back ahead, Peterson answered for the Saints with a close shot to give them a 60-59 lead heading into the final minute. But, after the teams swapped scoreless possessions, Monmouth redshirt junior Jen Louro maneuvered through the Siena defense for the game-winning layup with 2.2 seconds to go.
On that shot, Jaques said the Saints’ problem was “bad help defense.”
And, in all honesty, it made sense that such a piece of the game would cause Siena problems on Wednesday. While the team had spent practice time working on game-play situations with fewer than five players on the court in case a player fouled out or suffered an injury, the Saints simply didn’t have enough players at practice to work on making sure they were ready to scramble together to produce a last-second defensive stop.
“When you’re in practice playing 3-on-3, you don’t have to have secondary help because you’re 3-on-3,” Jaques said.
Young almost delivered the Saints the win, anyway, but her long-range attempt at the buzzer was off the mark. Young finished with a game-high 28 points, while Peterson scored a dozen and Brown added 10.
For Monmouth, freshman Belle Kranbuhl produced 16 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
Jaques said she thought the “mental part” of only having six players was the toughest thing for her team to handle as it headed into Wednesday’s game.
And, they handled it.
“I think I’ve got some really confident young women in my locker room and I think some of them really grew up tonight,” Jaques said. “The lights were on, and I thought they performed really well.”
Before Wednesday’s game, Jaques said she took part in a Zoom call with her program’s players unable to be in New Jersey with the team. For the coach, that was likely the toughest part of the day.
“I actually got really emotional because we miss ’em,” Jaques said. “It’s really tough, but I’m proud of this group.”
Siena is scheduled to play Saturday and Sunday at Manhattan, but Jaques said she’s “concerned” about playing back-to-back games with only six players. Previously, MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor has said that teams that play on the weekend need to play both scheduled games, but Siena could elect not to play any games if it is required the Saints either play twice or not at all.
If the decision was left up to her players, Jaques said she knew her six Saints would want to play this weekend — and that type of attitude was what nearly carried Siena to a victory on Wednesday night.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” Jaques said.