ALBANY — It had to be Michael Baer.
After a week filled with tragedy for Baer and the Siena men’s basketball family, it had to be the graduate student forward from Iowa raising his arms to the Siena student section in celebration, firing up the raucous MVP Arena crowd of 7,801 as the Saints — just days removed from the deaths of Michael Baer’s father John and honorary team member Evan Franz after their respective battles with cancer — stormed away from Iona Friday night in an awe-inspiring second-half performance for a 70-53 win on Coaches vs. Cancer Night.
“It’s not too far-fetched to think there was some divine intervention, possibly,” Michael Baer said.
John Baer died Sunday morning, and after Michael Baer played in that afternoon’s loss to Fairfield, he flew back to Iowa to be with his family. The next day, Franz — an 18-year-old from Brunswick who joined the Saints as an honorary team member last season — died after a four-year battle with brain cancer.
John Franz, Evan’s father, sought Baer out during pregame warmups on Friday.
“He kind of yelled out to me, and I came over and gave him a big hug,” Baer said. “Sharing that hug before the game meant a lot to me.”
All Baer, who started his college basketball journey as a student manager for former Siena head coach Fran McCaffery’s Iowa program, did after that was go out and play the best game of his career.
The 6-foot-7 graduate student, who transferred to Siena prior to last season, scored 18 points on 7 of 11 shooting, matching Andrew Platek for the game-high total, and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds in a game that saw a Saints (8-2 MAAC, 14-7 overall) team playing without leading scorer Javian McCollum due to a back injury solidify its hold on first place in the MAAC by outscoring Iona 37-17 after halftime.
“He not only inspires me, but our entire team,” Platek said of Baer. “For someone who’s going through what he’s going through, it’s just incredible how he comes into work every day with a smile on his face and a positive attitude. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch. I’ve learned so much from him — how to carry myself every day, how to carry loss and grief the way he has with such maturity. He’s an incredible guy. I’m lucky to be friends with him.”
Baer will head back to Iowa this weekend for his father’s Monday funeral, meaning he’ll miss Sunday’s game at Marist, but it was “never a question” whether he’d play Friday night against rival Iona in a showdown for first place in the MAAC standings.
“My siblings and I were joking that my dad would probably roll over in his grave if I didn’t play tonight,” he said.
When he played against Fairfield, just hours after his father’s death, Baer said he felt the weight of the moment.
Friday night, his head was clearer.
“I just wanted to come out and be myself,” Baer said. “I think, from the Fairfield game last week, everything being so fresh, I could feel all the eyeballs in the building on me, and I felt like I probably thought I was expected to act a certain way. But, I just wanted to come out here and be me this week.”
It was a mindset shared throughout the entire Siena program at the end of a trying week.
“Evan and Mr. Baer, we played for them,” said freshman guard Zek Tekin, who made his second career start with McCollum sidelined.
“Definitely, definitely an emotional week,” sophomore guard Jared Billups said. “We’re just a family, and we said we’re going to do it for one another — and I think that’s what we did.”
Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello said Friday’s performance was a testament to the Saints’ resolve.
“I do think we had some help from Evan Franz smiling down from heaven, and obviously Mr. Baer,” Maciariello said. “It was a tough week. I’m not going to lie. We barely practiced this week. . . . But, when it’s all said and done, they understood the game plan, we kept it simple and we played Siena basketball.”
Siena trailed 36-33 at the half, falling behind by as many as seven after a lightning-quick 12-0 Iona (6-3, 13-7) run just before the final media timeout of the half.
The second half was a different story. Platek drained a pair of 3-pointers early in the half, fueling the fire as the Saints outscored Iona 24-5 over the first 8:34 of the second half — including a 17-0 run during that stretch — and led by as 20.
With McCollum out, it was the graduate student trio of Baer, Platek and Jackson Stormo (17 points, four rebounds, four blocks) who led the Saints. Nelly Junior Joseph led the way for Iona with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but was held to just two points after halftime.
While Maciariello started his postgame press conference with a swaggering assertion of “How do you like them Saints?” after his team’s dissection of a Gaels squad coached by Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Rick Pitino — who declined interviews after Friday’s 17-point loss — Siena’s coach also emphasized the bond that allowed his team to cope with the tragedy of the past week.
“So many teams use the word ‘family’ and put it on the back of their shirt and stick it on the wall,” Maciariello said. “And it doesn’t mean what it means here at Siena College. For me, that’s the most inspiring and special thing.”
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Unbelievable game! Great performance, especially after disappointing outings with Canisius and Fairfield. I have to hand it to the Saints – they performed when it counted tonight.