Siena was on the verge of running away with a win its men’s basketball program had long coveted.
Against Iona, in the MAAC tournament.
And . . .
Then . . .
A brutal finish sent the top-seeded Saints to an all-too-familiar ending for their passionate fan base, as the Gaels — for the 11th time in as many tries — knocked Siena out of the MAAC tournament Wednesday with a 55-52 victory. Siena, featuring back-to-back MAAC Player of the Year winners in Manny Camper and Jalen Pickett, was ahead nine points with less than nine minutes to go, then suffered through a scoreless stretch of more than eight minutes as Iona put together a 16-0 run that crushed the Saints’ dreams of making their program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2010 in excruciating fashion.
And it was a crushing defeat, a loss in the quarterfinals that Pickett said will stick with the Saints as they move forward from their one-and-done stay in the MAAC tournament.
“All year, until we get back to this point,” Pickett said of how long Wednesday’s three-point loss will motivate the Saints. “We’re going to look back at this the whole time because winning the regular season doesn’t really mean anything if we can’t win in the tournament. That’s the whole goal. We want to win the [MAAC] tournament and go to March Madness. So this is going to stick with us all year.”
Siena, theoretically, could still play in a postseason tournament such as the CBI or NIT, but that doesn’t appear likely. Regular-season conference champions are typically guaranteed at least a berth in the NIT, but Siena has now won back-to-back regular-season titles without even taking that reward; last year’s NIT was canceled when the college basketball season shut down in mid-March because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, while the NIT downsized from 32 teams to 16 for this season and removed its automatic qualifiers.
When last season abruptly ended, Siena was on a 10-game winning streak and two wins away from heading to the NCAA tournament. Siena’s plan was to leave Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey this year with a MAAC tournament championship and head to Indianapolis for the NCAA tournament.
That won’t happen after a game that saw Siena commit 17 turnovers, make 7 of 16 free throws and get out-rebounded 39-29 by an Iona team that made 14 of 55 shots from the field and still found a way to send the Saints home from the MAAC tournament.
“When a team shoots, for the game, 25% and wins, that’s incredible character,” said Iona head coach Rick Pitino, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member who is in his first season leading the Gaels.
While Iona struggled offensively for so much of Wednesday’s game, so, too, did Siena. Junior Jackson Stormo led the Saints with 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, but Siena’s dynamic duo of Camper — named Wednesday as the MAAC Player of the Year after Pickett won the award last year — and Pickett mostly struggled against Iona’s high-pressure defense.
Camper — a senior who has one year of playing eligibility remaining, if he wants to use it — finished Wednesday with six points and five rebounds after averaging a double-double during the regular season. He made 2 of 8 free throws, and committed five turnovers.
Meanwhile, Pickett had six turnovers. The 6-foot-4 junior guard contributed 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but five of his points came in the game’s last several seconds when the contest’s outcome had already been decided.
Siena (No. 1 seed, 12-5 overall) took a 24-21 lead over Iona (No. 9, 10-5) into halftime after Saints freshman Aidan Carpenter — playing after missing the team’s previous three games with an ankle injury — made a 3-point right before halftime. The entire first half was played within a two-possession margin, with Siena’s six-point lead at 21-15 serving as the largest lead for either team.
The game stayed close for much of the second half, but Siena used a 7-0 run — ended with back-to-back dunks from Camper and freshman Colin Golson — to move ahead nine points. After Iona made a 3-pointer and Stormo answered with a three-point play, though, Siena fell apart.
Siena led 42-33 with 8:33 to go after Stormo’s three-point play — and didn’t score again until Stormo made his first 3 of the season with 19.9 seconds left, after Iona had rattled off 16 unanswered points. During that stretch of eight-plus scoreless minutes, the Saints missed defensive assignments, all six field-goal attempts they took, had a couple careless turnovers and missed the front end of two separate 1-and-1 trips to the foul line.
During Iona’s run, redshirt senior Isaiah Ross made three 3s and added a free throw for 10 of his 14 points.
All season, it frustrated head coach Carmen Maciariello how Siena — the most-talented team in the MAAC — could struggle to stretch leads and put away teams. In the end, that flaw — Siena’s “Achilles’ heel” — was what derailed the Saints’ season.
“When it’s all said and done, the teams that make it to Indianapolis [for the NCAA tournament] don’t relax,” said Maciariello, whose team’s five losses this season against MAAC opponents were by a combined 13 points. “They don’t squander leads. They cut harder. They get open. And they value the basketball.”
Siena dealt with as much adversity related to the pandemic as nearly any Division I program in the country this season. The team experienced four separate pauses of in-person team activities, and didn’t even play its first game of the season until Jan. 3.
But Pickett — one of the Saints to test positive this season for COVID-19 — said the hurdles Siena faced shouldn’t have kept the team from making good on its goal to head to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s very disappointing,” Pickett said during the post-game teleconference. “But everybody had stoppages. We don’t make excuses here.”
Redshirt senior Asante Gist led Iona with 16 points. He made two free throws to cap Iona’s 16-0 run, then made four more free throws in the final minute that never saw Siena get within a single-possession margin of Iona until Pickett’s last-second 3.
Iona entered the MAAC tournament as the ninth seed, but that was because of the league’s decision to seed teams for its tournament by total wins rather than winning percentage since teams had played different totals of games due to issues related to the pandemic. Most viewed Iona as one of the top teams in the MAAC throughout the season, and that’s the mentality Gist said his team brought with it to Atlantic City.
“I don’t mean disrespect to them — they [Siena] played a great game — but we feel as though we’re supposed to beat everybody, anyway, so it’s not really a shock to us,” Gist said of upsetting the No. 1 seed.
Like every team this season in college basketball, Siena is able to bring back its full complement of players for next season. Perhaps a new season will bring better luck for the Saints, who Maciariello acknowledged had a “depleted” roster by season’s end since the team was without two scholarship players — including a starter in graduate student Nick Hopkins — because of health-related issues, and the Saints only had 10 scholarship players on their roster all season. The loss of Hopkins, who missed the team’s final six games, was especially tough for the Saints to handle, as the guard offered steady, veteran play and spaced the floor with his long-range shooting ability.
But, more than luck or anything else, the Saints need to grow, and learn the needed lessons from this season that saw them win a dozen games and keep themselves from taking five more.
“We have to get better,” Maciariello said. “That’s it.”
And Pickett said the Saints will have the fuel to do that. The program has now lost 11 times to Iona in the MAAC tournament, and everyone currently on the Siena roster now owns a piece of that mark.
“Well, I’ve lost to Iona twice in my [MAAC tournament] career, freshman year and now this year,” Pickett said. “So I’m going to bring a different fire, definitely, for myself. I know I want to play them again.
“When times get tough, you’ve just got to keep fighting through it.”