POUGHKEEPSIE — Jared Billups talked the talk, publicly.
Anthony Gaines did the same, but behind closed doors.
In the end, Billups got away with it, because the Siena men’s basketball team walked off the McCann Arena court with a huge 67-60 comeback victory over Marist on Friday after having trailed by as much as 18 — twice — in the first half, and by 17 with 12 minutes left in the game.
Facing such a big deficit, Carmen Maciariello threw the coaching equivalent of a Hail Mary pass by throwing a never-used 1-3-1 zone defense at Marist in the second half, and when it worked, the Siena head coach stuck with it.
Suddenly the Red Foxes couldn’t find good shots, turned the ball over and resorted to fouling, giving the Saints a chance to claw back into it, which they did by outscoring Marist 34-10 in the final 12 minutes for Siena’s biggest comeback since being down 19 to UAlbany 11 years ago.
Billups, the energetic freshman guard, had said in the lead-up to the game that the Red Foxes, “have a lot of players that just want to score the ball,” and that they weren’t, “really cohesive as a team.”
It looked like those words would blow up in his face when Siena was down 38-24 at halftime, but the Northwestern grad transfer Gaines leaned on his experience to emphatically remind the Saints that they weren’t out of it. Then, Siena backed it up.
“I was telling guys just to stay locked in,” Gaines said. “I told them ‘I believe in every one of you guys. Be aggressive and take winning shots.’ I told them I never had a doubt we would come back and win this game.”
“Just to stay locked in, like he said,” junior guard Colby Rogers said. “It’s a long game, a game of runs. It’s not impossible to come back. He said put that behind us. I think we did that and focused on winning four-minute segments.”
“Credit to these guys for staying the course and not giving up,” Maciariello said. “And I think that’s what Anthony talked to the team about at halftime, before we [coaches] got in there.”
Siena improved to 3-1 in the MAAC and 6-6 overall, and Marist fell to 2-4 and 7-8.
The Saints did so despite trailing 50-33 at almost the midway point of the second half.
Aidan Carpenter scored six straight points from there to trigger a 17-2 run that included back-to-back jumpers by Colby Rogers and got Siena within 52-51 with 5:28 left.
The momentum didn’t stop there, and when Rogers hit two free throws with 2:59 left to put Siena up 56-55, it was the Saints’ first lead since 4-2 in the opening moments of the game.
With the shot clock winding down, Gaines drove to the basket from the left wing and made a difficult floating jumper almost out of bounds on the baseline and was fouled. His free throw made it 61-58 with 1:16 left.
Then it was Billups’ turn to take it hard to the basket, on a chaotic sequence in which the teams swapped turnovers off an inbounds by Siena. The ball found its way back into Billups’ hands, and he made a tough layup and the resulting free throw for a 64-58 lead with 29 seconds left.
“Uh, so coach had called a play, and I didn’t know the play, so I drove, and I had the turnover, but Colby played amazing defense and got a deflection and it came back to me, and then it was just a basketball play,” Billups said, grinning sheepishly, with his coach sitting next to him at the post-game interview table.
Siena closed it out by making more free throws. The Saints were 11 for 13 from the line in the final 3:25.
When addressing his pivotal coaching maneuver, Maciariello held up his hand with his fingers cupped to his thumb and said, “Zero,” counting the number of possessions this season in which Siena has played zone defense.
“I was a big fan of the 1-3-1, actually,” Maciariello said. “My high school coach [at Shenendehowa], Jim Zullo, ran it in high school, and he’s a tremendous teacher. A couple possessions, they took some quick 3s that fueled our break and also stopped their penetration. And it was able to get us some rhythm and take them out of rhythm.”
“A hundred percent. A hundred percent … It threw us way off,” Marist head coach John Dunne said. “They just junked it up — and I don’t mean this in a demeaning way, and it wasn’t like the 1-3-1 was particularly great. Clearly, it’s not something they do.
“But it just threw us off enough, and that’s what he was willing to do. When you’re down that big, I’m sure he’s thinking, ‘Let me throw something out there, and if it works, I stick with it, and if it doesn’t work, I get out of it, what’s the harm.’ It was a good move by him, and gutsy by him. And it hurt us.”
Billups thrived in the 1-3-1 and finished the game with Siena plus-19 in the scoring column while he was in the floor. The next closest Saint was Gaines, at plus-7.
Billups’ pre-game activity in the media also came up during the post-game, bringing on the second of Billups’ sheepish moments. Maciariello had a little talk with his freshman during the week about his Marist comments.
“Yeah, it [Marist comments] was discussed pretty much every day since I said it,” he said with a grin. “But, no, I think we played great despite that. I think it did give them a little motivation, but we’re a great team, and I like the fight we had.
“I know I’m young, he knows I’m young, so he wasn’t harping on it too much. It was just, ‘Next time, watch what you say.'”
“Told Jared to try to not give any bulletin board material,” Maciariello said. “But I feel like we get everybody’s best shot, anyway, because we’re Siena. No need to give them any extra ammo.”
“He had some comments before the game about our team,” said Marist’s Jao Ituka, who led the Red Foxes with 20 points and knows Billups from AAU in their home state of Maryland. “And my mindset today was going into this game and making sure we win it. I’m not saying we had to prove anybody wrong, but I really wanted him to eat those words. Unfortunately, we came up shot.
“But we’ll see ’em again,” he added, nodding his head. “There’s no mistake, we’ll go there [Albany] and get a ‘dub’ [win] there and keep pushing.”