The Siena women’s basketball team underwent substantial change this season under first-year head coach Ali Jaques.
Some things never change, though, which means that if the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament is about to begin, Siena and Fairfield must be scheduled to play each other.
The teams have met in seven of the last eight tournaments, and five of those have been to open the tournament.
They’ll do it again at 11:30 this morning at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.
Sixth-seeded Siena (12-17) lost twice to No. 3 Fairfield (17-12) during the regular season, but both games were close, and the Saints are coming off a 64-53 win over Canisius that clinched the all-important No. 6 seed, thus avoiding the first round.
“Even when I coached at Rider, that [Siena-Fairfield] was a rivalry,” Jaques said. “It’s fun to be a part of it.
“They’re disciplined. The two games we played were very close. We lost both by seven points, and it easily could’ve gone either way. I feel like it’s a very evenly matched game, and the more desperate team is probably going to figure out a way to win.”
“It’s a case of here we go again,” Fairfield coach Joe Frager said. “The game at their place was an absolute dogfight, and the one at our place was very, very similar.”
Also in the Some Things Never Change Dept.: Marist (23-6) is the No. 1 seed for the ninth straight year after going 18-0 in the conference, the third time the Red Foxes have been undefeated in the last six seasons. They’re chasing their eight straight tournament champ-ionship, and will kick it off at 1:30 p.m. against Manhattan.
Marist coach Brian Giorgis said that going 18-0 was “one of the proudest moments in Marist history,” as the Red Foxes went unbeaten, but didn’t have a player named to the All-MAAC first team.
Siena and Fairfield wouldn’t have to face Marist until the championship game, which is scheduled for noon on Monday.
After a long stretch with Gina Castelli as head coach, the Saints gave the job to Jaques, who implemented a defensive scheme that includes a press to speed up the game and get easy shots.
Jaques said the team began to become a reflection of what she was looking for at the turn of the new year, when it lost close games on the road to Sacred Heart, Canisius and Niagara, followed by a 66-59 loss at home to Fairfield.
“This is going to sound absolutely crazy, but I think the lightbulb went on in those three games we lost, with the Sacred Heart loss at the end and in Buffalo, with Canisius hitting that halfcourt shot and the tough loss in overtime to Niagara,” Jaques said. “The circumstances of that, their toughness and intensity, we’ve talked a lot about intangibles and having a no-quit attitude.
“For X’s and O’s, it took some time for them to shift and understand what we were trying to do. But just from a standpoint of them buying into what we were trying to do, it was during that stretch, where they refused to quit, I knew we had something going.”
“They get after you on defense and have a combination of inside and outside on offense that is very challenging,” Frager said.
The transition was made smoother by the fact that Siena’s only senior, forward Lily Grenci, embraced the change.
She led the team in scoring (16.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.8 rpg) and was named to the All-MAAC first team, making her a finalist for Player of the Year. Damika Martinez of Iona won that award on Thursday.
“Lily just does it all, with double- and triple-teams,” Jaques said. “She’s been able to produce, but also make other players around her better. As much as it is about points and rebounds, Lily was a huge catalyst for this team in accepting a new coaching staff.
“I give her a lot of credit for having an open mind and buying in and letting the team see that, hey, it’s something new, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. She spearheaded that, and I owe her a lot, because she really bought in.”
“She brings so much intensity into every game that you have to try and match that and bring the same intensity and energy she has,” Grenci said of Jaques. “That shows up on the court. We have girls diving at every loose ball on every play, and that’s a great feeling.”
The Siena-Fairfield winner will play at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday against today’s No. 2 Iona-Cansius winner.
The Stags didn’t have a player on the All-MAAC first team, but junior forwards Katie Cizynski and Brittany Obi-Tabot made the second team.
Obi-Tabot averaged 10.4 ppg, but hurt the Saints with 20 points in the 66-59 win on Jan. 10 and 17 in a 50-43 win on Jan. 25.
The Stags closed the season with a 70-33 loss to Marist.
“We have to reboot after a very tough end to the season, but we’re happy with the third seed,” Frager said.
“Marist is the team to beat, and has been for seven years now,” Jaques said. “Our focus all year has been on us. I’ve had a lot of coaches through the years tell me that if you focus too much on the opponent, sometimes you lose a sense of what you’re good at and who you are. We’ve said that all year, ‘It’s about us,’ with complete respect for our opponents.”