Surprisingly successful Siena women’s basketball season ends in MAAC semifinals

Basketball player with ball

Ahniysha Jackson dribbles during Friday's MAAC tournament game in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo courtesy MAAC Sports)

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The youthful Saints gave it their best shot.

In the end, the Siena women’s basketball program just couldn’t make enough of them to hold off a late charge from a veteran Iona squad on a mission to claim a MAAC championship this year.

“Well, it’s disappointing, but I’m also really proud,” Siena head coach Jim Jabir said after his team’s 67-66 loss in Friday’s MAAC tournament semifinals against top-seeded Iona at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall. “We’ve come a really long way, and what we’ve accomplished this year is kind of unexpected, and we ran into a team that is the epitome of team. They’re well-coached, they’ve got seasoned players and they made great adjustments in the latter part of the second half that we couldn’t adjust to. So, hat off to Iona, but I couldn’t be more proud of . . . our whole team. I’m so, so proud of them — and the future is really, really bright.”

Siena gave a look into that future, as the Saints never trailed through the game’s first three quarters and led by as many as 16 points in the third quarter. The Saints played free and fast, their style, but couldn’t execute for a full 40 minutes against the MAAC’s top team. 

Siena led 54-40 and had made 23 of 48 shots after a bucket from Angel Jones midway through the third quarter. But it’s a make-or-miss sport — and Siena proceeded to misfire on 18 of its next 20 shots as Iona got rolling. 

Siena took a 10-point advantage into the fourth quarter, but the Gaels took their first lead on a 3-pointer from Natalia Otkhmezuri with 3:35 to go. Iona never led by more than five points, but never relinquished the advantage once it took it.

It was, no doubt, a tough end to the season for the Saints. That Siena found itself in the position it did Friday, though, represented positive growth for a team that won 10 games the prior season. The Saints were picked to finish tied for ninth place in the 2022-23 MAAC preseason poll and relied extensively on freshmen and sophomores in a campaign that saw them significantly outdo expectations.

Iona head coach Billi Chambers — whose club will face sixth-seeded Manhattan in Saturday’s MAAC final — said one of her takeaways from her club’s semifinal win was that the Saints are “going to be incredible” in the years to come.

“They come in with the right mindset to really get after it on both sides of the ball,” said Chambers, whose program swept Siena during the regular season. “Coach Jabir has done an incredible job bringing in a group that’s going to really compete in this league, and everybody’s got to be ready to go [for them].”

Jabir took more positives than negatives from the way the Saints’ season closed.

“We fought and we competed really, really hard for a long time against a really good team, and, so, there’s no shame in that,” Jabir said. “Sometimes, you want to win so bad that anytime you lose, you consider it a failure — but you can lose a game and win.

“I felt like we really advanced the program today and we put people on notice that we’ve got to be reckoned with, and also, hopefully, incentivized our guys that if you work really, really hard, anything’s possible,” he continued. “There are no limits. So we want to go to the NCAA tournament, we want to win MAAC championships — and, if that’s the goal, and everyone works to that goal, then today was a great, great success.”

Siena (No. 4, 19-13) led Iona (No. 1, 25-6) by eight points after a quarter, seven at halftime and 10 heading to the fourth. Iona, though, made shots, turned up its pressure defensively and owned the glass in the final quarter.

But the Saints didn’t go quietly despite offensive struggles in the final frame. After MAAC Player of the Year Juana Camilion put Iona up five points with 48.2 seconds to go, MAAC Rookie of the Year Elisa Mevius answered with a 3-pointer 10 seconds later. Siena elected to play out the defensive possession without fouling, and Iona’s Ketsia Athias connected for a basket with nine seconds left.

After a timeout, Anajah Brown made a layup to get Siena within 67-65, and was fouled on the play with 1.9 seconds left. Brown tried to miss the free throw to give the Saints an opportunity for another possession, but the foul shot hit off the backboard, then bounced around the rim before falling through for a point that essentially ended the contest.

“She’s too good,” Jabir deadpanned later. 

For Iona, three players recorded double-digit scoring, all seniors. Otkhmezuri’s 20 points led the Gaels.

Brown led Siena with 20 points and 12 rebounds in its finale. Ahniysha Jackson scored 18 points. A junior, Jackson was the only Saint to play in the semifinal who wasn’t a freshman or sophomore.  

“The sky’s the limit with this team. We’re so young, and it felt like we’ve already proved people wrong,” said Brown, a sophomore. “We can only go up from here, especially with how hard we work in the summer, and how hard we work in practices. My expectations for this team is so much, so high, that ultimately the sky is the limit. Next year, we’re going to win it. That’s my expectation.”

In Friday’s fourth quarter, the Saints showed they have work to do to become a championship-level team. An experience like the one the Saints had in their season-ending semifinal, Jabir said, will only help them moving forward.

“You know, it’s a really big game, there’s a lot at stake, and I think they felt that — and that’s OK,” Jabir said. “I mean, they hadn’t felt it before in their lives. And, hopefully, next time we see that, we’ll handle it in a better way.”

Categories: College Sports, Siena College, Sports

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