WASHINGTON — With the team’s leading scorer, sophomore point guard Javian McCollum, ruled out shortly before game time, Thursday afternoon’s road matchup against American could’ve been an easy excuse for Siena men’s basketball to throw in the towel and head to their Christmas break for a chance to heal up.
Instead, the Saints pulled it together and pulled out one of their toughest wins of the season.
With McCollum out due to what Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello called a “lower body injury,” the two players asked to do the most in his absence proved to be the biggest reasons Siena walked out of Bender Arena with a 64-61 win.
Fifth-year senior Jayce Johnson moved over to start at point guard in place of McCollum and scored 14 points, including a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock with 21 seconds left that essentially sealed the win, while freshman Michael Eley played 25 minutes off the bench and matched his career high with 16 points.
“We’re continuing to grow,” Maciariello said. “We’re understanding how we want to play. We’re understanding how hard we have to defend. Guys are understanding, when they come in, their minutes matter.”
Johnson had experience filling in at point guard in place of McCollum, as he’d done the same thing during Siena’s summer trip to Italy when McCollum was unavailable to play.
When McCollum, who was initially banged up during his 23-point performance in Monday’s Franciscan Cup win over St. Bonaventure at MVP Arena, struggled at Siena’s shootaround on Wednesday, Johnson started to get into the mindset he’d need to play point guard at American.
About 10 minutes before Thursday’s tip-off, Maciariello let Johnson know that’s where the Buffalo native would be starting.
For Johnson, the switch was natural.
“It’s easy to play a different position,” he said, “when you’re thinking about your teammates and not thinking about what you have to do for yourself.”
Johnson finished with 14 points, the most important of which came in the final 30 seconds of the second half.
In a game Siena (1-0 MAAC, 7-5 overall) led by double digits in the first half, only to see American (8-3 overall) rally to take its first lead of the game midway through the second half, the Saints were nursing a 59-57 lead.
Coming out of a timeout with 41 seconds left, the Saints drew up a play for graduate student forward Jackson Stormo, but couldn’t get the ball in to him. With the shot clock running down, Johnson drained a step-back 3-pointer over an American defender to make it a two-possession game.
“I just felt comfortable getting to a certain spot on the floor,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a shot that I practice, but I put a lot of time into putting myself into position to make a shot like that.”
Eley, whose play down the stretch was crucial in Siena’s win over St. Bonaventure, once again came up big in the second half. The freshman scored 13 points after halftime, and his team-high 16 points matched his career-best set against Army in November.
“I thought he really had kind of a veteran’s mentality, where he just did little things to help us win,” Maciariello said. “Box-outs, loose balls, just being a competitor really helped.”
“I feel like I’m getting in a good rhythm,” Eley said.
Stormo added 14 points and Jared Billups scored 10 for the Saints. Michael Baer, who moved into the starting lineup as Maciariello opted for a bigger group without McCollum, grabbed a game-high seven rebounds as Siena dominated on the glass.
Siena finished with a 34-20 rebounding advantage, grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, and had a 13-4 advantage in second-chance points.
“I’m really proud of the effort of our guys,” Maciariello said. “We didn’t break. We were able to execute. I thought Jackson made some big shots, obviously Jayce made a huge shot.”
Matt Rogers scored 14 points and Johnny O’Neil scored 13 for American, which had an eight-game win streak — including an 88-62 win over UAlbany in late November — broken.
The Saints now turn their focus onto MAAC play, and with Maciariello listing McCollum as “day-to-day,” they’ll hope to be at full strength for next weekend’s two-game trip to Connecticut, facing Quinnipiac on Dec. 30 and Fairfield on New Year’s Day.
“He should be fine after some nice, needed time off at home,” Maciariello said.