Albany County

Siena men’s basketball team ‘coming together’ as second half of MAAC season rolls along

Siena’s Jared Billups with the ball against Iona’s Walter Clayton Jr. during the MAAC basketball game at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, February 11, 2022.
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Siena’s Jared Billups with the ball against Iona’s Walter Clayton Jr. during the MAAC basketball game at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday, February 11, 2022.

In the two-plus weeks between his club’s matchups with Siena, Iona men’s basketball head coach Rick Pitino — a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member — said the strides the Saints made were easy to see.

Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said his sense, too, is that the Saints have turned a corner in their season.

And Anthony Gaines, Siena’s graduate transfer from Northwestern who starred in Friday’s statement win against the Gaels in Albany, said he thinks he knows why that’s the case.

In short: Siena’s collection of a few holdovers from a club that won a share of last year’s MAAC regular-season title, a host of talented transfers and some impressive freshmen is becoming a team rather than simply combining to make up a roster.

That was Gaines’ take Friday after Siena’s 70-64 win against first-place Iona, a game that ended with the Saints celebrating with classmates that rushed onto the MVP Arena floor. Gaines scored a game-high 21 points in the win, and played through what looked like a painful cramp in his left leg in the final minutes. 

For a team that has had players constantly in and out of its lineup due to injuries, Gaines playing through pain to make sure his club earned a victory was a prime example of what’s helped mesh this season’s Saints.

“When you see your teammates fighting through injuries to win games, putting it all on the line so that we can be successful as a group, you thrive off that,” said Gaines, who is one of only two Saints to appear in every game this season. 

Siena had 10 scholarship players available for Friday’s game, and several of them wore obvious scars from the season’s toll. Jackson Stormo’s left eye has a significant scrape next to it, a wound that glue is being utilized on so the 6-foot-9 center can stay in the lineup, while Jared Billups and Nick Hopkins are playing through hand/wrist injuries that look significant based on the amount of protective wrap being used on them.

Those are the easily visible injuries that Saints are playing through at the moment, but few players on any college basketball roster are 100% healthy once February rolls along. 

Gaines, though, said he sees the Saints as a galvanized group as Siena gets set to play at 1 p.m. Sunday in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, against a Rider club that defeated Siena earlier this month.

“It builds a lot of trust and chemistry within a team, and I think that’s what’s starting to happen,” Gaines said of the Saints playing, and winning, despite their injuries. “That’s what’s starting to show. We’re coming together and we’re becoming a great team.”

Against Iona in a game shown on ESPNU and played in front of 6,000-plus fans at MVP Arena, Siena rallied from down 10 points early in the second half to seize its biggest win of the season. Pitino was far from thrilled with the way his team played Friday, but the only coach to lead three different programs to a Final Four made clear that his team “didn’t play great because [Siena] made us not play great” in the matchup of two MAAC contenders.

“I really enjoyed the way they played tonight. They did an outstanding job,” Pitino said of the Saints. “They have good talent. And, sometimes, you know, when you take that many transfers, it just takes time. Just takes time. They don’t all click right away. So they’re starting to click right now. They’ve won five out of six, and they’ve got excellent talent and they’re going to get better and better.”

The lone defeat in that six-game stretch since Siena’s 17-point loss at Iona was the Saints’  14-point loss to Rider. That victory for the Broncs was the second in what’s become a four-game winning streak heading into this weekend’s game.

In that game against Rider (6-7, 10-13) in Albany, third-place Siena (8-4 league, 11-9 overall) was out-rebounded 37-27, made only 20 of 49 field-goal attempts and couldn’t find enough defensive answers. Dimencio Vaughn led Rider in that game with 24 points and eight rebounds.

With  eight games to go in the regular season, Siena — picked eighth in the MAAC preseason poll —  is on track for a first-round bye in the conference tournament. After its trip to Rider, Siena returns to MVP Arena for two games — against Marist, then Saint Peter’s — as it looks to continue to stay in the mix atop the MAAC standings.

Maciariello knows what his club needs to do in order to do that.

“We need to continue to remain in character, and these guys [have to] continue to do their jobs,” Maciariello said. “I think those jobs and that role definition has really grown. I think these guys understand where to get guys the ball and who is really good in certain areas on the floor, and how hard we have to screen and cut to get open. 

“I think these guys are growing by the day, and I think it’s just a joy to coach and I’m really thankful I get to do it.”

Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports

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