ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Siena made it all the way back, had the momentum and took the lead.
In a blink, Niagara answered with a game-changing run — then, later, made the game-sealing shot it needed to end the Saints’ season in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.
The Purple Eagles’ 71-65 win turned a late-season losing streak for the Saints into a season-ending one. After winning the first six games of its MAAC season, the Siena men’s basketball program’s season ended late Thursday night with a sixth consecutive defeat that sent the Saints earlier into their offseason than they’d hoped.
“We want to be great. We don’t want to just be average,” Maciariello said after the completion of his fourth season guiding his alma mater’s program. “We never want to go through a six-game losing streak. That’s the first one of my career. That won’t happen again.”
But it happened to close out a 2022-23 season, an odd conclusion to a campaign that saw the Saints make it through January in first place in the MAAC after an opening three months and 22 games that had them looking like a team capable of an extended postseason. In February and March, though, the Saints were 2-8 after a 15-7 start that included several memorable wins. In the end, Siena fell in the MAAC quarterfinals for the third year in a row.
Against Niagara, Siena fell behind by as many as 11 points early in the second half before mounting a comeback that put the Saints ahead 52-51 with 8:17 to go after a 3-pointer from Javian McCollum. That shot capped a 17-6 run, and Maciariello called a timeout following the go-ahead basket.
Out of the timeout, Niagra regrouped and recovered. An 8-0 run later that took a little more than 70 seconds put the Purple Eagles ahead for good, despite the Saints making a few more pushes in the final minutes.
“We took a one-point lead on a Javian 3, I used a timeout, and then we couldn’t get a stop,” Maciariello said. “I thought we were able to kind of change the game with our 1-3-1 [zone defense] and dictate tempo and get them off-rhythm, off-balance. But they made some timely shots.”
The final timely shot for Niagara was too much for the Saints to overcome. A 3 from Michael Eley brought Siena within 66-65 with 42.8 seconds left, but the Purple Eagles had an answer. Following a Niagara timeout — called after star Noah Thomasson flirted with traveling against Siena pressure — the Purple Eagles found Aaron Gray in the corner for a 3 to effectively seal their win with 12 seconds to go.
“What a college basketball game,” Niagara head coach Greg Paulus said. “Siena is a tremendous program, a terrific team; we have so much respect for them. Just really proud of our guys to find a way to win. I loved our fight, our resiliency. When Siena came back, and made an unbelievable run and took the lead, our group stayed together, continued to trust and I thought just the will and the resiliency was at a really high level. So, I’m just really proud of our guys.”
The MAAC’s leading scorer during the regular season, Thomasson finished with 18 points to lead Niagara, which had four players record double-digit scoring. For Siena, McCollum had a game-high 24 points, 16 of which came after halftime, while Eley finished his MAAC Rookie of the Year campaign with 16 and Jared Billups added a dozen.
Outside of Siena’s three double-digit scorers, no Siena player scored more than Andrew Platek’s five points. Siena’s bench only offered four points to Niagara’s 20.
Neither Siena (No. 4, 17-15) nor Niagara (No. 5, 16-14) headed into Thursday’s matchup off a great finish to the regular season. While Siena lost its final five regular-season games, Niagara had lost five of six.
“As soon as the regular season [was] over, we met with the team in the locker room and on the bus and just said, ‘Hey, we’re zero and zero. It’s a new season,’” Paulus said.
Siena started strong Thursday, but entered halftime down 34-26 following a long cold spell. Siena scored the game’s first six points and led for nearly all of the opening 10 minutes. But after the Saints scored 19 points in the opening 10:08 of the half, they only managed seven points in the next 9:52. At one point, Siena went more than five minutes between scoring, a lull that McCollum stopped with a 3-pointer that ended a 9-0 Niagara run.
Thomasson scored a dozen points in the first half to lead all scorers.
Siena only made 10 of 31 shots in the first half, including 3 of 11 from 3-point territory. The Saints also only made 3 of 7 free throws and turned 10 offensive rebounds into only seven second-chance points. Niagara made 14 of 30 shots, including 4 of 9 from 3-point territory.
For the game, Siena made 23 of 61 from the field and 7 of 22 from 3. Niagara made 27 of 55 shots, including 9 of 23 from 3.
While Niagara will play Iona Friday in a MAAC semifinal, Siena heads into a pivotal offseason. The Saints will need to replace at least five scholarship players, but will also need to work to retain their talented young core in an era of college basketball when that’s become increasingly difficult due to relaxed transfer rules.
That young core includes four potential starters for next season in Billups, Eley, Killian Gribben and McCollum, but Siena will need to keep all of them — and add to that mix.
“I know those guys are hungry,” Maciariello said, “so I need more hungry guys.”
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Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports