ALBANY — Whether Harvard made its game-tying shot in Saturday’s final seconds or not, the question Siena College men’s basketball head coach Jamion Christian plans to issue at the start of Monday’s practice for the Saints wouldn’t have changed.
That message: “What did we learn?”
The reasoning: “That’s my way of helping them understand that it’s not about the outcome.”
Saturday’s outcome, though, was a favorable one for the Saints. Siena snapped a four-game losing streak with a 67-64 win against Harvard at Times Union Center, as redshirt senior Kevin Degnan scored a game-high 16 points and freshman Jalen Pickett produced 14 points, eight assists and four rebounds in a game-high 39 minutes.
But this season is about the process for the rebuilding Saints, which means little will come easy for them. Mistakes are inevitable, even in games when Siena is showing the promise it hopes to deliver on once MAAC play comes along.
Saturday’s game was a clear example of that.
For 37 minutes, Siena played near-flawless basketball as it built up a 10-point lead heading into the final minutes. The Saints’ defense allowed a season-low 22 points in the opening half, mixed creating open looks for 3-pointers with aggressive drives to the basket on offense, and rarely turned the ball over.
Then, those final three minutes happened. Siena (3-5) struggled against Harvard’s (4-4) full-court pressure and at the foul line, and almost gave away its first home win of the season.
“They really took us out of what we wanted to do,” Pickett said. “We just have to keep working and keep moving forward with getting better in that area.”
Even after struggling down the stretch, Siena had a three-point lead and possession with 15 seconds to go . . . and, then, things almost took a tragic turn for the Saints. Siena finally beat Harvard’s full-court pressure, but a pass intended for a wide-open Degnan sailed high. Instead of being able to make a game-ending layup, an off-balance Degnan temporarily recovered the loose ball before passing it to Harvard junior Christian Juzang with five seconds to play. Juzang found junior Justin Bassey for a 3-pointer, but the shot was long and the Saints escaped with the win.
“It was just a dumb mistake,” Degnan said. “It won’t happen again. That’s all I’ll say about that.”
As Degnan said that at Saturday’s post-game press conference, his coach smiled. Christian half-joked that a win “helps [the players] listen to me more, which I think is what we need to do,” but there is a lot of truth to that. These Saints are not so much young as they are inexperienced, and that quality showed down the stretch against Harvard.
“The reality of it is [that] we have a lot of guys that are on the floor right now that . . . hadn’t been in that situation before,” Christian said.
That was especially true after Siena senior Evan Fisher left the game with 7:24 left with an apparent right ankle injury that Christian didn’t know the severity of immediately after Saturday’s win. With Fisher out, Siena used a lineup of sophomore Manny Camper, Degnan, junior Sammy Friday, Pickett and freshman Sloan Seymour for a long stretch — and no player in that five-man lineup averaged more than 2.5 points or 7.6 minutes per game last season at the college level.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Christian said of the win, “but many times in life, things aren’t perfect.”
Showing improvement, though, is critical for the Saints. Saturday’s victory was the first home win this season for Siena, and Christian acknowledged the Saints — coming off an 8-24 season — need to produce results to regain trust with, and generate excitement for, their fanbase.
“We’ve got to do our work here with these home games — and even games on the road, playing well — to gain momentum for our fans to know that we’ve got a really competitive, tough-minded, really talented team here,” Christian said.
For Harvard, Bassey led with 15 points. Besides Degnan’s 16 points and Pickett’s 14, Friday had 10 off the bench for the Saints.
“Excited. That’s our first home win,” Friday said. “The way it ended was kind of crazy, but we worked hard and dug it out.”
And if they hadn’t? Monday’s practice, Christian said, wouldn’t go any different.
“We’ve just got to get back to practice and just start digging in again, seeing the areas where we can get better,” Christian said.
Djuricic 2-6 1-2 5, Welsh 3-6 0-1 6, Bassey 6-12 3-6 15, Juzang 3-4 2-3 10, Johnson 2-3 0-0 6, Haskett 3-3 0-0 8, Kirkwood 2-8 1-2 6, Freedman 0-1 0-0 0, Forbes 1-1 0-0 2, Baker 3-6 0-0 6. Totals: 25-50 7-14 64.
Seymour 3-9 0-0 9, Fisher 3-8 0-0 6, Degnan 6-12 1-2 16, Camper 3-5 1-4 7, Pickett 6-14 0-0 14, Smithen 0-0 3-6 3, Huerter 0-0 2-2 2, Darwiche 0-1 0-0 0, Ratliff 0-1 0-0 0, Friday 4-6 2-3 10. Totals: 25-56 9-17 67.
Halftime score: Siena 27, Harvard 22. Three-point shooting: Harvard 7-18, Siena 8-23. Rebounds: Harvard 33 (Welsh 8), Siena 33 (Fisher 6). Assists: Harvard 9 (Bassey, Juzang 3), Siena 15 (Pickett 8). Turnovers: Harvard 15, Siena 9. Total fouls: Harvard 14, Siena 17. Attendance: 5,650.