ALBANY — It looked like head coach Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels were going to use a second-half storm to complete the regular-season sweep of the Saints.
Then, Siena stormed back before hanging on for the biggest win of its MAAC men’s basketball season to date.
“Their execution was terrific, played a great game,” Pitino said of the Saints after their 70-64 win Friday at MVP Arena. “We didn’t play great because they made us not play great, so they deserve the credit. It was a good victory for them. Certainly.”
Less than three weeks after Iona had rolled past Siena in New Rochelle, the Gaels looked ready to do it again. After the teams were tied at 24 at halftime, Iona pushed to a 42-32 lead less than seven minutes into the second half.
Then, Siena got going. With six consecutive made free throws, the Saints started a game-changing 25-7 run that Jackson Stormo capped with a layup to give Siena a 57-49 lead. Iona didn’t go quietly, but Siena maintained a lead for the final 7:13 following a two-handed jam from Stormo off an assist from Colby Rogers to make it 49-47 in the Saints’ favor.
“We knew they were going to come out punching in the second half,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said of the Gaels. “We got down 10, and we responded — and we won the game.”
Anthony Gaines was the top star for Siena (8-4 league, 11-9 overall), scoring a game-high 21 points. Gaines had scored no points in Iona’s 17-point win against Siena on Jan. 25, a contest that saw Gaines pick up two quick fouls and never get in the flow.
“I was just more locked in this game,” Gaines said. “The first time we played them at their place, I got a little out of control and my mind was racing. I just wasn’t myself throughout that game and I wasn’t the leader my teammates needed, so I put my focus into that.”
In the final 1:13 of Friday’s game, Iona scored on three separate occasions to get within a single possession of Siena. The Saints, though, made their final eight free throws of the game to keep the Gaels from completing their comeback attempt.
Besides Gaines’ 21 points, Siena received 15 points from Rogers, 14 from Stormo and 11 from Javian McCollum.
“I thought the whole [Siena] team played well,” Pitino said. “They were very focused. They got to the foul line, which was key. The only reason it was tight at halftime was they missed their free throws.”
Siena made only 2 of 8 foul shots in the first half, then made 24 of 28 after halftime from the foul line.
Iona took 20 fewer free throws than Siena, but Pitino — a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member — said he didn’t have an issue with the way the game was officiated.
“Any other normal coach would blame the referees,” Pitino said. “Every one was a foul. Every one was a foul. We fouled on every one.”
Iona (11-2, 19-5) received 20 points from Tyson Jolly and 15 from Elijah Joiner, but those two players shot a combined 13 of 35. Meanwhile, Nelly Junior Joseph — one of the MAAC’s top big men — had a dozen rebounds, but was scoreless in 33 minutes.
The loss was Iona’s second in a row. Iona lost its first game of the MAAC season Sunday out in Lewiston, as Niagara ended the Gaels’ bid for an undefeated league season.
Friday’s game was shown on ESPNU and tipped off at 9:06 p.m. The night’s contest was the best-attended of the season for Siena with an announced crowd of 6,383. Heading into the game against Iona, the Saints’ average home attendance this season was 5,175 and no game had more than the crowd of 5,842 for Siena’s home opener against Delaware.
Several hours before Friday’s contest tipped off, significant changes to the spectator policy for games at MVP Arena were announced. The use of face masks is no longer mandated, while fans neither need to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination nor a negative coronavirus test result.
Both teams play again Sunday, with Iona playing host to Monmouth (8-5, 16-8) and Siena traveling to face Rider (6-7, 10-13). The Saints had hosted Rider a week before their game against Iona, with the Broncs earning a 74-60 win that night.
Rider heads into this weekend’s matchup off a win against Saint Peter’s (9-4, 11-9).