UNCASVILLE, Conn. — His team missing one shot after another, Siena College men’s basketball head coach Jamion Christian turned to his bench late in Friday’s first half at Mohegan Sun Arena.
With a nod, he reminded everyone to take a breath.
“No frustration,” Christian said. “We reset. One play at a time.”
It was a night where the Saints needed that kind of message, as they struggled for nearly all of the first half and chunks of the second. One brilliant stretch, though, and large doses of gritty play were enough to provide Siena a 61-58 victory against Norfolk State, and send the Saints into Sunday’s 11 a.m. championship game of the Air Force Reserve Basketball Hall of Fame Classic’s Springfield Bracket.
“We stayed locked in on the defensive end and got stops when it mattered,” said Siena senior Evan Fisher, whose team will play Holy Cross in Sunday’s tournament final. “I think we just trusted each other and trusted our offense.”
Siena (2-1) trailed Norfolk State (2-3) 38-33 early in the second half before the Saints’ trust in their offense finally paid off. That’s when Siena hit four consecutive 3-pointers, missed one, then had freshman Jalen Pickett make back-to-back deep 3s to beat the shot clock to put Siena ahead 54-47.
Siena led the rest of the way, but saw its lead dwindle to as little as one point on multiple occasions. Eventually, Norfolk State redshirt junior Steven Whitley missed a layup in the final seconds, though, and Siena redshirt senior Kevin Degnan made a pair of free throws with 0.8 seconds to go to wrap up the win for the Saints.
“Just enthused for our team. Just a way to really dig it out. Talked about being road warriors and finding a way to get a victory against a good Norfolk State team,” Christian said. “We found a way to do it at the end.”
Siena had trailed Norfolk State 31-26 after a poor-shooting first half. The Saints made 7 of 20 shots and 4 of 15 from 3-point territory in the opening 20 minutes. In the first half, Siena only made consecutive shots on two occasions and missed seven consecutive attempts early in the game. The Saints missed the first five 3s they attempted.
It was a physical opening half, too. Fisher had to switch from his normal No. 32 to No. 30 after getting blood on his original jersey, while sophomore Manny Camper suffered a cut on his right elbow late in the first half.
For the game, Siena made 18 of 43 shots and 11 of 30 from 3.
Freshman Sloan Seymour led Siena with 14 points, while Fisher had 13 and Pickett had 12. Camper didn’t score, but had a team-high nine rebounds in 13 minutes.
Siena is off to its first 2-1 start since the 2011-12 season, and the Saints are over .500 for the first time in a little more than 20 months. A year ago, Siena lost its first four games last season on its way to an 8-24 campaign.
Before Friday’s win, Siena was last above .500 after its memorable win in the 2017 MAAC tournament semifinals against top-seeded Monmouth. In that 89-85 victory, the Saints rallied from a 17-point deficit on the strength of a 27-point second half from Nico Clareth during which the former Siena player made seven 3-pointers.
Camper 0-2 0-0 0, Pickett 4-6 0-1 12, Seymour 5-10 0-0 14, Fisher 4-7 5-8 13, Degnan 1-3 4-4 7, Bayer 0-0 0-0 0, Smithen 2-5 3-4 8, Huerter 0-3 0-0 0, Ratliff 1-4 0-0 3, Darwiche 0-0 0-0 0, Friday 1-3 2-4 4. Totals: 18-43 14-21 61.
Thomas 2-7 0-0 5, Kelly 0-2 0-0 0, Long 3-6 1-1 7, Whitley 3-9 4-4 10, Butler 5-7 3-5 13, Pitt 1-3 0-0 2, Fitzgerald 0-0 2-2 2, Bryant 0-3 0-0 0, Branch 1-3 0-0 2, Ford 0-0 0-0 0, Jamerson 6-14 3-11 15, Chavis 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 22-56 10-12 58.
Halftime: Norfolk State 31, Siena 26. Three-point shooting: Siena 11-30, Norfolk State 4-24. Rebounds: Siena 26 (Camper 9), Norfolk State 35 (Butler 9). Assists: Siena 13 (Pickett 4), Norfolk State 11 (Pitt 4). Turnovers: Siena 10, Norfolk State 9. Total fouls: Siena 12, Norfolk State 21. Attendance: 1,313.