ALBANY — Need a ballkid to mop up a sweaty spot on the floor late in the game, and he isn’t paying attention to the ref?
Nico Clareth summoned the kid, and we had a mop.
Need a shoulder to help senior Marquis Wright, suddenly stricken with painful leg cramps after the post-game interviews?
Clareth bolted away from reporters to lend one.
Need an ankle to magically heal at halftime, and a ferocious speech, and, oh, let’s say seven three-pointers in the second half?
Done, done and done, and so is top-seeded Monmouth in the MAAC Tournament, after Siena’s 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Clareth absolutely shouldered the load for his team in every way imaginable on Sunday.
It was one of the greatest halves of college basketball by one player that these 54-year-old eyes have seen in person, and was just enough to get Siena into tonight’s championship game for the first time in seven seasons.
The numbers barely tell the story, but they’re eye-popping nevertheless:
After playing three minutes in the first half with one rebound and one missed shot, Clareth — on a sprained ankle that kept him out of the quarterfinal win over Fairfield on Saturday and likely will keep him out of tonight’s championship game — made seven of nine 3-pointers and all four of his free throws to score an absurd 27 points in 16 minutes of the second half of the Saints’ 89-85 victory.
I guess you could say he “exploded,” just like you could say Luke Skywalker was making s’mores over the Death Star campfire.
Put it this way, when Clareth gave a Michael Jordan don’t-ask-me-because-I-don’t-know shrug to the Siena fans after a shot early in the second half, he was just getting warmed up.
Down by 17 early in the half, Siena roared back behind Clareth, who simply couldn’t miss from wherever he shot, it seemed. Of his seven 3s, the first was from the left corner, two were from the top of the arc and the rest were from either wing. He also nailed a difficult baseline fadeaway off the wrong foot with a minute left to give the Saints an 82-79 lead.
Afterward, his coach and teammates, in a state of wonderment, could only offer thanks.
“Nico, he hunts down shots,” senior Brett Bisping said. “We were trying to get him the ball whenever we could, but he was just on fire. He was just making everything. It was fun to watch.”
“I probably learned more about toughness, grittiness from Dennis Johnson, Larry Bird,” head coach and Boston native Jimmy Patsos said. “Bird hit his head against the Indiana Pacers and was going against the Rifleman, Chuck Person. And that was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen. And then I saw Nico today, and . . . “Congratulations. Because that was unbelievable. He couldn’t walk two days ago.”
The shooting performance was enough on its own merit, but the thick, rich stew of context that came with it made Clareth’s night even more remarkable.
The game fell a month to the day since Clareth had a meeting with Patsos to address his return to the team after an indefinite leave of absence that left many questioning whether he was done in a Saints uniform.
Clareth was welcomed back into the fold and returned to practice the following day, but his MAAC Tournament prospects took a hit when he rolled his ankle in practice on Wednesday. Patsos said he would probably get one game out of Clareth no matter how deep Siena went in the tournament, which means Sunday’s effort could be the extent of his contribution on the court.
They needed every minute of it.
“Yesterday [Saturday], I couldn’t play, I couldn’t really walk or put weight on it,” Clareth said. “Today, it was kind of more of the same thing, it was just a little less stiff. Then once that adrenaline and heart starts kicking in, I don’t think I could feel it.”
“His adrenaline was through the roof,” Patsos said. “He was through the roof at halftime, and he said, ‘I’m playing, and we’re winning.’
“He said, ‘We’re not going out like this’ and a few other things that I agreed with.”
It sounded like Clareth’s halftime tirade was as crucial to Siena’s comeback as his scoring was.
Senior Lavon Long said it was triggered by some thin walls between the teams’ locker rooms, which communicated, shall we say, a bubbly Monmouth side of the partition.
“He came in at halftime with this drive,” Long said. “They were playing music, getting excited like the game was over, and when he came in, he wasn’t having it. Not only did he pump himself up, he pumped up each and every senior, every player . . . phew . . . it was unbelievable, I can’t even . . . OK, I need a different question.
“He said they were too happy, and it made him mad, and it kind of spread.”
Asked if this was the defining moment of his season, Clareth said, “Yes, yes, yes and yes. This is everything right here. This is the happiest I’ve ever been. Hugging these guys, and we’ve got one more to go. Nothing is impossible, and I always like to think it’s the storm that got us in. There were a lot of things going through my head. But, hey, we’re here.