Very few college basketball teams are fortunate enough to end their seasons with a national tournament championship.
Siena has an excellent opportunity to join that exclusive list.
If the 19-18 Saints can beat 21-17 Fresno State in the rubber game of the best-of-three College Basketball Invitational championship series this morning at 11:30 a.m. at the Alumni Recreation, they will wrap up their first postseason crown since winning the 1950 National Catholic Invitational, 26 years before the program moved up to the NCAA Division I level.
Siena will try to become the first-ever Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference program to capture a postseason title and secure the 19th 20-win campaign in school history. The Saints’ 11-win improvement is already the sixth-greatest turnaround in Division I this season.
But despite winning eight of their last 10 games, the Saints looked terrible in Wednesday’s 89-75 Game 2 loss to the Bulldogs. Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos was not in a good mood at Friday’s practice session, because he felt a need for an attitude adjustment for his Saints. He was especially concerned about his team’s lack of execution on the defensive end. The Bulldogs shot a blistering 76 percent in the first half and 64 percent for the game.
“We need to stop the ball, and we need to help each other on defense,” Patsos said. “We had a tough atmosphere at the ARC the other night, but it was almost too good. I’m a little disappointed with the way we played. We got out out-worked and out-hustled. But five out of the last six years, this series went to three games. It’s a lot like an NBA playoff series.”
Patsos borrowed a quote from Microsoft founder Bill Gates as a warning to his team: “Success can be the enemy.” Patsos said his team might have gotten a little too caught up in how well it had played recently.
Several of the Saints seemed to have gotten the message.
“Not many teams end their season with a W,” said sophomore forward Brett Bisping, who was one of the few bright spots Wednesday night with 20 points. “We need to turn things around. One of the things we need to do is to start off the game better. In both first halves, we didn’t play well. We were able to come back from that Monday night, but we got too far down Wednesday.”
Freshman point guard Marquis Wright was also solid Wednesday night with 14 points and six rebounds.
“We’ve been talking about possibly winning a title ever since we lost to Canisius in the MAAC tournament and found out we were in this CBI tournament,” said Wright. “But playing here at the ARC the other night was a different atmosphere. I can’t explain it. Even though we practice here, it wasn’t the same thing when we played a game here. But the fans were great, and I knew we are going to play much better [today].”
Fresno State coach Rodney Terry knows there won’t be any surprises for either team after facing the Saints twice already in the last week.
“We have a really good feel for them, and I know they have a really good feel for us,” he said. “We might make a few changes here and there, just like we’ve made a few adjustments throughout the series, but for the most part, we’re going to do what we do. I think it will come down to a game of wills.”
Fresno State senior guard Tyler Johnson, who scored 19 points Wednesday and is the program’s 13th-leading scorer all-time, said the Bulldogs will be ready to put it all on the line.
“It means a lot to all of our players, and I’m sure it means a lot to Siena, too,” he said. “I’m sure nobody thought Siena or Fresno State would still be playing at this time of the year. I think it would not only be unique, but I think it would be awesome to win this title.”