The only time the Siena Saints haven’t picked up their feet lately is when they’re stepping on your neck.
Halfway through the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference season, Siena isn’t doing anything halfway.
In a much-anticipated high-noon matchup against second-place Niagara on Saturday, the Saints ganged up on the Purple Eagles and walked away with an 82-65 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 7,980 at the Times Union Center.
Siena improved to 9-0, the first MAAC team to do so since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1997.
The Saints (15-5 overall) made 10 of their first 11 shots, never trailed and finished the game shooting a tidy 60 percent (36-for-60), the first time they’ve done that since a 115-103 victory over Iona in 1995, when Siena was 39-for-64 (60.9 percent).
The Saints have won in a variety of ways, but the troubling development for the rest of the MAAC in the last two games — against two of the best teams in the conference — is that Siena has run out to big leads from the opening tap and has maintained the advantage right through to the end.
This time, the Saints took a 24-11 lead midway through the first half, and although Niagara (5-3, 14-6) got within three early in the second half, Siena never allowed the Purple Eagles to make a real game-changing run.
“We don’t want to ever let a team think they can hang with us, or they can beat us,” junior forward Edwin Ubiles said. “We want to jump on them from the start. We want to push the lead as far as we can, and make it tough for them to come back and have them pressing us.”
“Well, I hope we’re a better team than that,” Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich said. “Clearly, when you play a team as good as Siena, you don’t have a lot of room for error. They beat us every which way. Offensive end, defensive end, they did everything better than us. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.”
The Saints were ruthless.
They attacked the middle of Niagara’s defense and got easy shots by driving the ball in the halfcourt, running in transition and posting up.
Sophomore center Ryan Rossiter, who made all seven of his shots and all four of his free throws, was in the middle of pretty much all of it, filling up the stat sheet with 18 points, 12 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and two steals.
He got all the help he needed, and some.
Ubiles scored 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting, Alex Franklin had 15 points and eight rebounds and Kenny Hasbrouck was 6-for-9 for 13 points.
Those three and Rossiter combined to shoot 29-for-39 (74.3 percent).
Niagara, meanwhile, didn’t get much offense from the perimeter, which meant they had to rely on center Benson Egemonye (18 points) and little-used freshman Austin Cooley, who had 24 total points in 17 games coming in, but scored 13 in 26 minutes, including 10 in the first half.
In the second half, Siena held the Purple Eagles to 30.8 percent from the field.
“We defended them, and you have to, because that’s a potent offensive team,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “They’ve got a lot of different offensive weapons, and they come at you. We were ready for that kind of game today.”
Rossiter scored the first two baskets of the game, on a high-low pass from Franklin and a dunk off a snappy pass from the three-point arc by Ubiles.
Ubiles appeared to have an easy one inside, missed it, then easily put it right back in for a 6-1 lead. In the first 81⁄2 minutes of the game, that was the only miss by Siena, which took a 20-11 lead, then extended it to 24-11 on a floater by freshman Kyle Downey and an easy driving finger roll by Ubiles.
He and Rossiter each finished with 10 points in the first half as Siena took a 42-36 lead.
Tyrone Lewis’ three got Niagara within 44-41, but Siena went on a 15-5 run finished by a thunderous dunk from the weak side by Franklin off a pass by Rossiter out of a double team. That made it 59-46, and the Purple Eagles never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
“We knew they kept their center, Egemonye, to stay back a little bit, so that gave me more room to work, and we knew they were
going to double the post a little bit, so we were prepared for it,” Rossiter said.
“They’re an aggressive team, so we knew they were never going to give up,” Franklin said. “We kind of were expecting them to come and come and come, but we did a good job of executing and kept attacking them, and that’s why the run never came.”
“When they had open shots, they made them, when they needed to get a rebound, they got it, when they needed a dribble-drive to the basket, they did it,” Mihalich said. “At the other end, we did not do that.”
Benn 4-8 2-4 10, Egemonye 8-13 2-2 18, Garrison 1-1 0-0 2, Lewis 3-15 0-0 8, Nelson 5-12 1-1 11, Cooley 5-14 0-0 13, Williamson 1-4 0-0 3, Gordon 0-1 0-0 0, Edwards 0-0 0-2 0. Totals: 27-68 5-9 65.
Rossiter 7-7 4-4 18, Franklin 7-11 1-5 15, Ubiles 9-12 2-2 20, Moore 1-7 0-0 2, Hasbrouck 6-9 0-0 13, Downey 2-5 2-3 6, Jackson 3-8 0-0 6, Wignot 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 36-60 9-14 82.
Halftime: Siena 42, Niagara 36. Three-point goals: Niagara 6-23 (Benn 0-1, Lewis 2-8, Nelson 0-1, Cooley 3-9, Williamson 1-4); Siena 1-9 (Moore 0-3, Hasbrouck 1-2, Downey 0-1, Jackson 0-3). Rebounds: Niagara 32 (Egemonye 8); Siena 37 (Rossiter 12). Assists: Niagara 13 (Nelson 10); Siena 12 (Moore 5). Total fouls: Niagara 16; Siena 9. Technical fouls: Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. Attendance: 7,980.