LOUDONVILLE — It’s a Siena team with a “point to prove,” as senior Jackson Stormo put it, when the Saints host Iona and its legendary head coach Rick Pitino at MVP Arena Friday at 9 p.m.
Iona — coming off its first league loss of the season — is the MAAC’s first-place team, the program that knocked top-ranked Siena out of last year’s MAAC tournament and the club that rolled past the Saints earlier this season in New Rochelle.
Colby Rogers, the Siena men’s basketball team’s leading scorer, grimaced as he recalled that first matchup with Iona, a 74-57 loss on Jan. 25.
“They hit us in the mouth the first game,” Rogers, a junior, said earlier this week.
That shot to the jaw came when Iona turned a competitive game into something else with a quick flurry. In a matter of seconds — seven of them — a combination of Iona’s full-court pressure and Siena’s “careless” ball-handling helped turn the Gaels’ six-point lead into a 14-point one, and the Saints were never closer than a dozen points in the final 14:30 of that loss, which saw Pitino’s club build a lead as large as 25 points in the second half.
“Obviously, they’re a good team — and we’re a good team — and we didn’t play well against them,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said. “We played well in stretches down there, and we’ve got to do it for 40 minutes, no matter who the opponent is.”
Since that game, third-place Siena (7-4 MAAC, 10-9 overall) has won four of five games, while Iona (11-1, 19-4) won two more games before falling last Sunday at Niagara to end the Gaels’ bid at an undefeated MAAC season.
“The formula is to play good basketball, and to be able to defend and be able to take care of the ball,” Maciariello said of Niagara’s win against Iona. “So, you know, it’s nice to know [Iona can be defeated], but, when you look at the winning metrics of the game, right, Niagara beat them on the glass by five, Niagara only had five turnovers and 17 assists.
“So we know the formula. Now, it’s can you do it? Can you match it?”
Siena’s loss against Iona was its second in five days. Around that stretch, Siena has won eight of nine games, as the program’s revamped roster has made progress since its rough start.
“I think we know ourselves better. I think we’ve grown,” Maciariello said. “I think we’re closer. I think [our] understanding [has heightened] of how important each possession is, and how every game is important.”
If Iona needed a lesson in terms of that, it received that last weekend at Niagara. Against a team that’s below in .500 play, Iona lost its perfect league season — and severely harmed any chance it had at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament if the Gaels are unable to claim the MAAC’s automatic bid this March.
For Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Pitino’s team, Tyson Jolly (14.6), Nelly Junior Joseph (13.6) and Elijah Joiner (11.8) are the leading scorers. Against Siena earlier this season, Iona had a balanced scoring effort, with no player scoring more than 13 points.
Rogers had 17 points for Siena in that game and Aidan Carpenter scored 13, but no other Siena player scored more than six. The Saints were two shy of their season-high tally of 20 turnovers against the Gaels, and Siena missed half of its 16 free throws. Anthony Gaines — Siena’s third-leading scorer at 10.2 points per game — was scoreless in 22 minutes against Iona, and only took two shots in a game that saw him pick up two fouls in the first four minutes.
Stormo said a game against a rival that receives an extra spotlight in the form of being broadcast on ESPNU is one that’s “easy to get up for.” Still, he said, the Saints are “still trying to approach it like any other game,” and Rogers said that means the Saints need to continue to build on the positive steps they’ve taken as their season has moved closer to the March games that count the most.
“We’ve got to trust each other and play confident,” said Rogers, Siena’s leading per-game scorer at 14.6 points. “I think we can beat them, it’s just a matter of us going out there and playing how we’re supposed to play.”