LOUDONVILLE — Siena was far from perfect Thursday night.
But in an unpredictable regular season, the Siena men’s basketball team did something special on a night that didn’t see the Saints play their best game.
They guaranteed themselves the regular-season finish they were predicted to achieve.
There is still a MAAC tournament next week to go win for this club, but the Saints clinched at least a share of the league’s regular-season crown with their 73-66 win Thursday at UHY Center against Canisius. With one game left in the regular season, Siena still could finish tied atop the league standings with Monmouth, but the Saints — who swept the Hawks — own the tiebreaker and officially locked up Thursday the No. 1 seed for the MAAC tournament in Atlantic City.
“It means a lot, but the work is not finished,” said senior Manny Camper, who contributed 17 points and 11 rebounds on the senior night he shared with teammates Harrison Curry and Denzel Tchougang. “Our goal is to get to the Big Dance, so we’re going to continue to work. We got the win, but there’s a lot of things we need to work on.”
Siena didn’t get the chance last season to reach the NCAA tournament. With the Saints on a 10-game winning streak, concerns related to the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the MAAC tournament with Siena two wins away from clinching a spot in the NCAA tournament, which was also canceled.
After that disappointment, the club lost all of its summer workouts, then its fall offseason work was conducted with restrictions in place related to the pandemic. Its formal preseason was marred when the program’s series of three nearly consecutive pandemic-related pauses started, and the team ended up not debuting until early January. Another pandemic-related pause took more time away from the team after it had played its first 10 games.
The MAAC schedule, always, was changing. Thursday’s game against Canisius saw Siena play the team it once was scheduled to open its season against, and had been scheduled to play — at one point or another — on several occasions this season.
Then, there were injuries, including one that cost Jalen Pickett — the reigning MAAC Player of the Year — three full games this season and limited his effectiveness in others, plus the more-recent ones that reduced the team’s total of available scholarship players to seven Thursday for the second consecutive game.
But with a game to spare — Siena and Canisius meet again Friday in the regular-season finale for both — the Saints claimed the top seed for a tournament they will be heavily favored to win.
How’d they do it?
“I think it’s really simple,” said Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello, who has led his alma mater to back-to-back regular season championships in his first two seasons at the helm. “We don’t make excuses and we don’t let others make excuses for us. Point blank. We’re not going to complain. We’re not going to talk about pauses. We’re not going to talk about testing. We’re not going to talk about any of that stuff — and we’re going to get better if we’re in quarantine or not, if we’re in isolation or not, if we’ve got six guys or not.”
“It took a really connected group. A really resilient group,” Pickett said. “We knew coming in that it was going to be highs and lows, the schedule was going to be changing, people were going to get COVID, people weren’t going to get COVID. We just knew that it was just going to be a next-man-up mentality and that if we had to go into a game with six players or seven players . . . we just had to have that right energy and have the next guy [step] up.”
For the second consecutive game, Siena (12-3 MAAC, 12-3 overall) only had seven available scholarship players for its game against Canisius (6-5, 6-5). But the Saints had available their four double-digit scorers on the season, and Camper, sophomore Jordan King, Pickett and junior Jackson Stormo were more than enough to defeat Canisius. Siena built its lead to as many as 17 points in the second half, then saw their advantage trimmed to a point with 3:24 to go, but answered from there with a 12-3 run before Canisius scored at the buzzer.
Besides Camper’s double-double on senior night, Pickett starred with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Stormo had a team-high 18 points, while King scored 15.
Siena committed 16 turnovers, but the Saints out-rebounded Canisius 40-31 and the Golden Griffins only shot 7 of 25 from 3-point territory.
“So put those two things together [the rebounding and 3-point defense] and we won the game, but not a clean game, obviously,” Maciariello said. “I don’t think we’ve played a clean game yet this year, so we’ve got to get that offense together, we’ve got to be able to be a little smarter on defense.”
Later, he added: “We still have a big margin to get better and be playing our best basketball.”
With a rematch with Canisius looming at 7 p.m. Friday, the Saints didn’t celebrate at all on the court after Thursday’s win. After the victory, Camper, Pickett and Stormo said the Saints are focused on what’s in front of them, not what’s behind them.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Stormo said.