ALBANY — Forget just getting bounced from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Against top-seeded Monmouth, the Siena College men’s basketball team faced the possibility early in Sunday’s second half that it was about to get run out of Times Union Center.
“But that never crossed my mind,” Siena redshirt senior Brett Bisping said. “I knew we were gonna fight to the end.”
Sure — and come up short, right? Because with only 17-plus minutes to go, Monmouth — which brought a 17-game winning streak into the semifinals — wasn’t going to lose all of a 17-point lead.
With a remarkable second half, Siena clinched its spot in tonight’s championship game. The Saints rallied for an improbable 89-85 victory against the team that beat them twice during the regular season, including once at Times Union Center by 20 points.
“Truly, truly give Siena all the credit,” Monmouth head coach King Rice said of his opponent, which shot 63.3 percent in the second half. “Their kids kept fighting and kept fighting, and that was an incredible college basketball game. The second half didn’t go our way and we are really, really crushed about it.”
Sophomore Nico Clareth — who did not play in Saturday’s quarterfinal and was questionable to play Sunday — scored all 27 of his points after halftime, making 7 of 9 3-pointers in a game played exactly a month after head coach Jimmy Patsos asked Clareth to rejoin the Saints from what ended up a seven-game leave of absence.
“He couldn’t walk two days ago,” Patsos said of Clareth, who sprained his right ankle during last Wednesday’s practice.
Siena (No. 4, 17-16) also received 21 points from senior Javion Ogunyemi, 20 from senior Marquis Wright and 13 from Bisping. Senior Lavon Long went scoreless, but served as the Saints’ primary defender on Monmouth (No. 1, 27-6) senior Justin Robinson, the twice-reigning
MAAC Player of the Year.
Robinson finished with 22 points, but needed 20 shots to get them.
“I just didn’t make shots,” Robinson said. “Congratulations to Siena.”
Clareth made his shots. After playing three scoreless minutes in the first half, Clareth checked in with Siena down 16 and 17:33 to go. He promptly made two 3s, but those were just a warmup.
After Monmouth went ahead 51-36 with 14:59 to go, Clareth made three more 3-pointers as Siena went on an 18-4 run that took 3:14 of game action.
Ogunyemi capped that run with a 3-point play to bring Siena within 55-54 with 11:27 to go.
“I just kept telling the guys throughout the whole game, ‘Man, we worked way too hard this year and had too many bad things happen to us to go out like this,’ ” Ogunyemi said.
But it looked like Siena was going out. After a mostly back-and-forth first half, the Saints collapsed before halftime. In the final three minutes of the first half, Siena had four turnovers and Monmouth closed on a 9-0 run to go into intermission up 39-25.
Rice said his team didn’t make any changes after halftime. Neither, he said, did the Saints.
“They just started making some 3-pointers,” he said.
But Siena first went ahead in the second half on a missed 3-pointer. Freshman Ahsante Shivers rebounded an Ogunyemi miss and his putback had Siena ahead 65-64 with 7:34 to go. From there, the teams traded the lead eight times before the Saints took the lead for good with 4:30 to go on a free throw from Bisping to put Siena ahead 76-75.
Siena made its final seven free throws of the game to clinch the win. The Saints never led by more than four points.
Fans chanted Clareth’s name shortly after the final buzzer sounded and Siena’s trip to its first conference championship game since 2010 was secured.
“This is everything right here,” Clareth said. “That’s the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Siena will play Iona (No. 3, 21-12) in tonight’s title game at 9. The teams split their series during the regular season. It’s possible, perhaps likely, the Saints won’t have Clareth available for that game. Patsos had said after the quarterfinal that Clareth’s injured right ankle likely could not handle playing multiple games during the MAAC tournament. The coach seemed to suggest Sunday night that he still believed that to be true.
“I’ll find out [Monday] morning,” he said, “but I did think he only had one game in him.”
Both Iona and Siena will be playing their third game in as many days when they play for the championship. The Saints, though, will be playing for a MAAC title in a season in which they started 4-11.
“I don’t think passion or energy or drive is gonna be an issue,” Long said.
“At this point,” Bisping said, “it’s who wants it more.”
Ogunyemi 7-13 7-9 21, Long 0-3 0-0 0, Bisping 5-6 2-2 13, Wright 7-17 5-6 20, Shivers 2-4 1-2 5, Richard 0-1 0-0 0, Smithen 1-1 0-0 3, Clareth 8-11 4-4 27, Friday 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 30-56 19-23 89.
Brady 5-8 0-0 10, James 5-8 3-3 14, Hornbeak 6-16 0-0 13, Robinson 9-20 2-2 22, Stewart 2-4 2-2 6, Sarr 0-1 2-2 2, Tilghman 3-3 5-6 11, Pillari 2-2 2-2 7, Quinn 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 32-62 16-17 85.
Halftime score: Monmouth 39-25. Three-point goals: Siena 10-18 (Ogunyemi 0-1, Bisping 1-1, Wright 1-5, Richard 0-1, Smithen 1-1, Clareth 7-9); Monmouth 5-18 (James 1-2, Hornbeak 1-7, Robinson 2-6, Stewart 0-2, Pillari 1-1). Rebounds: Siena 32 (Bisping 8), Monmouth 21 (James, Hornbeak 5). Assists: Siena 16 (Wright 8), Monmouth 10 (James 5). Total fouls: Siena 19, Monmouth 18. Technicals fouls: James.