The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament starts today for Siena.
Canisius has a head start, though, not only because the Griffs played on Friday, but because head coach Tom Parrotta told his team to treat the last four games of the regular season as if the Golden Griffins were already playing tournament ball.
At No. 9, Canisius is the second-lowest seed, but the Griffs are also one of the hottest teams still in the tournament heading into today’s 5 p.m. quarterfinal against the defending champion Saints.
After barely getting past Canisius in their regular-season finale, the Saints (23-7) don’t need a reminder of how well the Griffs (11-19) are playing, but they got one anyway when Canisius knocked off Loyola, 74-68, at the Times Union Center.
“We had beaten Canisius by 18 points at home, but at that point, they weren’t playing well,” Siena head coach Fran McCaffery said. “They were starting four sophomores and a junior, and by the time we come around a month later, they are like a different team. Sometimes, you try to convince your team of that, and they say, ‘Hey, we just drilled those guys,’ and the next thing you know, it’s a one-point game with two minutes to go, so they clearly have our attention.”
The Saints escaped Koessler Arena with a 78-74 win over the Griffs six days ago, after winning the first matchup, 91-73, on Jan. 29.
As they have been all season, the Griffs are still playing tough halfcourt defense and limiting teams to one shot, but now that is translating into winning basketball.
After Parrotta told the Griffs to start acting like they were in the tournament, the Griffs won three straight, including two on the road, before almost knocking off Siena. They’re riding a wave of confidence.
“Big game. I heard it’s sold out,” Canisius point guard Frank Turner said. “The first time they got us, they smashed us in the second half. Down at our house, we had them and they fought back. They’re a real good team. This is the game we’ve been looking for. We almost have to play a perfect game to beat them. Tomorrow’s an opportunity to shock the whole MAAC. We feel we can stay with any team.”
“You know what? We’re real excited,” Parrotta said. “We felt we had every opportunity to win that game up at Canisius, and this is a nice way to see how far we’ve come in that week and a half. I think we match up pretty well with them. We need to tidy up some things. and it should be a very good ballgame.”
Canisius defeated Loyola despite foul trouble to Turner, the Griffs’ best player.
He sat for a stretch of 6:15 in the second half with four fouls, but Canisius was able to maintain a five-point lead by the time he came back in.
“What it tells you is how far the’ve come as a young team,” McCaffery said. “Three months ago, they couldn’t have done that, but they’ve come a long way, they’ve continued to work and now they feel real good about themselves, and they’re playing that way.
“What I saw was a team that is playing with a lot of confidence. They’re sharing the basketball, they have an inside presence, they have stuff on the perimeter.”
Siena is playing with a load of confidence, too.
The Saints let some of their bedrock components —defense and rebounding — slip a little in the final weekend of the season, but they won this tournament with mostly the same team last year and know what it takes to get on a tournament-winning roll.
“We know where our mistakes were,” junior forward Alex Franklin said. “Defense and rebounding are key to our success, so going into the tournament, we’re really focusing on those two elements.”
“I think we’ve gotten too comfortable,” MAAC player of the year Kenny Hasbrouck said. “We stopped having the same intensity that we had at the beginning of the year. We slowed down because we got that big lead in the MAAC. Teams have shown us how good they are and that they’re going to fight us ‘til the end.
“Last year, we approached it like every game is a championship. We beat Rider by a lot, but in the first half, it was a fight. Every team came out like it was the last game they were going to play, and we have to play the same way.”
“We do have experience now,” McCaffery said. “We’re not freshmen and sophomores, although these players did it when they were freshmen and sophomores. Our players have a confidence in themselves, they believe in themselves and they know that I believe in them. When they take the floor, they’re focused on the job at hand, not the ramifications of whether we win or lose.”
The game will likely come down to how well Siena can get its running game going.
Defense and rebounding are usually the starting points for that.
“One of the things we learned from that last game is that they’re probably one of the best teams at getting the ball out of bounds and converting from defense to offense, so we have to seriously, seriously get back in defensive transition, cover up, and then once we can get in front of somebody, I think we can defend with the best of them,” Parrotta said.
Canisius 74, Loyola, Md. 68
Greg Logins had 19 points and 13 rebounds as ninth-seeded Canisius defeated eighth-seeded Loyola.
Frank Turner added 22 points and eight rebounds for the Golden Griffins (11-19, 5-14), who shot 53 percent from the field while holding Loyola to 32 percent.
The lead went back and forth nine times until Turner connected for what proved to be the go-ahead basket three minutes into the second half, though Loyola was able to cut the deficit to six with two minutes remaining.
Brian Rudolph and Brett Harvey scored 16 points apiece for the Greyhounds (12-20, 7-12).
Canisius closed the first half on an 18-6 run, erasing what had been a nine-point Loyola advantage, and took a 33-30 lead into the break.
MARIST 43, IONA 40
Ryan Schneider scored 14 points to lead 10th-seeded Marist to a minor upset of seventh-seeded Iona.
The teams combined to score the fewest points of any game in tournament history. The previous record of 86 was set in the 1985 meeting between Fordham and Manhattan, a 44-42 overtime win for the Rams.
David Devezin added 14 points for the Red Foxes (10-22, 5-14 MAAC), who advance to face second-seeded Niagara in today’s quarterfinal round.
Schneider deked his defender and hit the decisive three-pointer from the top of the key with 3:20 remaining to squelch a 7-0 run by Iona that had cut Marist’ lead to one.
Using a 15-2 run, Marist broke a 21-all halftime deadlock to go up for good.