LOUDONVILLE — It may have been difficult to tell in November, when the Siena men’s basketball team lost by 28 (twice), how good the Saints could be this season.
That image has been getting clearer lately, as Siena (9-4 MAAC, 12-9 overall) has risen to second place behind Iona in the MAAC, while winning its last three games and six of its last seven.
The Saints will put their three-game winning streak on the line next against a team that should be hungry for payback in a 7 p.m. game on Friday against Marist at MVP Arena. The Saints beat the Red Foxes 67-60 at McCann Arena on Jan. 14 despite trailing by 17 with less than 13 minutes left.
With seven games left in the MAAC regular season, Siena has picked the right time to coalesce as a team, not only in what contributions can consistently be expected from various players, but in its ability to turn those contributions into a winning formula. Besides the big Marist comeback, Siena has won two straight games over teams, Iona and Rider, who had previously beaten the Saints.
It was reasonable to believe that a roster top-heavy with players who weren’t here a season ago would need time to come together, but it appears that Siena has done that.
“I think we have more of an identity,” Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said Wednesday. “Guys are a little more solidified in their roles. I think our rotations have been better. We’re healthier, while still hoping to see what happens with Jayce Johnson. But besides that, guys have carved out their identities. Also, our defense has gotten better. We’ve been able to play more in transition and go inside-out.”
“We’ve come a long way since November, since even January,” senior center Jackson Stormo said. “We all know what our teammates want to do, so I’m hoping we can bring that cohesiveness and that camaraderie onto the court for the last few weeks. We’re really close. We’re kind of on the precipice of being where this team can be.”
Johnson, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Middle Tennessee, has missed the last three games.
Freshman guard Jared Billups has also been nursing a sore wrist, but otherwise Siena is about as healthy as it has been all season.
Siena hasn’t been blowing anyone out, but has been able to cobble together the right plays at the end of games to get on this roll.
The Saints are coming off a 76-75 overtime victory at Rider in which four different Siena players scored in double digits, led by Northwestern transfer Anthony Gaines with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Gaines also had 21 points and nine rebounds in last Friday’s 70-64 win over Iona, and he was named MAAC Player of the Week on Monday.
The stunning comeback against Marist on Jan. 14 indicates that Siena can figure out ways to make up a deficit.
“But at this point in the MAAC, every game is the most important game of the season,” Stormo said. “We’ve got to finish these last seven games strong going into the [MAAC] tournament, so we have that same level of importance for all the rest of the games.
“It helps, knowing we can get those gutsy wins when we need them.”
Maciariello has leaned heavily on man-to-man defense this season, but threw in a wrinkle, out of desperation, when the Saints were down big in the second half at Marist.
Shifting to a 1-3-1 zone, Siena disrupted the Red Foxes’ flow and stuck with it when Marist failed to adjust.
“We used it for a possession against Iona and we got a stop, but we didn’t get the defensive rebound,” Maciariello said. “Against Rider, we didn’t use it at all. I did see Niagara use it against Marist, though. So credit to [Niagara coach] Greg Paulus. They were down 18, as well, and cut it to two.
“I love being able to change defenses. But I think with this team, with so many new guys, we really wanted to be able to hang our hat on being really consistent and solid.”
The Iona win, which drew a Gold Rush promotional crowd of 6,383 to MVP Arena, featured a court storm by students at the final buzzer.
It was a vastly different scene from every home game last year, when the Saints played in front of no fans at UHY Center because of COVID.
Billups questioned whether a court storm was really needed for a regular-season conference game, but naturally had no problem with the enthusiasm of the biggest crowd of the season.
“That fan energy was amazing,” he said. “I know the stakes – well, it wasn’t that big of stakes – but it was Iona and Rick Pitino and stuff like that. I was a bit surprised.”
“It was amazing,” Stormo said. “I think Rob’s [Mahala] the only player on the whole team that had ever seen MVP Arena like that before. Me and Nick [Hopkins] and Aidan [Carpenter] and Steve [Lazar] were here last year, but obviously were playing in the UHY Center, so it was a whole different atmosphere down there. It was awesome. I’m really hoping the student body and Siena faithful can show up and show something similar [for Marist].’
The Red Foxes (6-9, 11-13) are enjoying a three-game winning streak of their own, having blown out Monmouth on the road and beaten Canisius 71-70 on Saturday and Niagara 77-70 on Monday.
During that stretch, freshman Jao Ituka, tied for third in the MAAC in points per game (15.4), averaged 22.3 ppg while shooting a combined 24 of 40 (60%) from the field.
He led Marist with 20 points in the loss to Siena.