ALBANY — Was it the leap forward head coach Jamion Christian has been looking for his Siena College men’s basketball team to take?
That will take more time to know for sure.
But Saturday’s 75-54 win against Cal Poly at Times Union Center was, at the very least, a large step in the right direction for the Saints.
“What a great way to finish out 2018,” said Christian, whose team won’t play again until Thursday at Saint Peter’s in its MAAC opener. “Just really proud of our group, our growth. Day in and day out, [I’ve been] telling everybody, preaching to the world, the stuff we’re doing in practice is really special, and it was great that everyone got a chance to see it kind of come together.”
Aside from one poor spell to start the second half, Siena put together the type of full-game effort Christian has promised the Saints were capable of producing. Senior Evan Fisher scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds, freshman Jalen Pickett contributed 16 points and 11 assists and freshman Sloan Seymour scored all 12 of his points on 3-point makes as Siena registered its first double-digit win of the season.
It came, too, as Siena finished its non-conference season with a 5-8 mark. The Saints were picked to finish last in the MAAC in the conference’s preseason coaches poll, but Fisher said Siena doesn’t lack for confidence as league play gets ready to start.
“I think every time MAAC play starts up, it’s always real competitive,” Fisher said. “You don’t really know who is really going to break from the pack. But I think everybody in [our locker room] believes we have a real good shot to win the title.”
While 3-9 Cal Poly represented perhaps the weakest opponent on Siena’s non-conference schedule, the Saints made significant strides Saturday on the defensive end of the court. The Saints have ranked nearly all season toward the bottom of the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, but had a first-half stretch against Cal Poly in which they registered 10 consecutive defensive stops and kept the Mustangs scoreless for 7:26 of game action.
“When we start defending the way we can,” Christian said, “it’s going to be scary and we can be really good.”
Siena led 36-25 at halftime, but relinquished that lead after Cal Poly scored the first 11 points of the second half. Siena, though, answered with a 10-0 run and maintained at least a seven-point advantage the rest of the way.
Siena still hasn’t heard about Elijah Burns.— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) December 29, 2018
If, though, he is cleared to play before Siena plays Saint Peter’s next week, Jamion Christian said there’d be no delaying Burns entering the rotation.
“He could play. He’s up to speed with everything he has to do.”#MAACHoops
Helping key Siena’s 21-point win was its success from behind the 3-point line on offense, as well as its defense’s success keeping Cal Poly from finding open 3s to take.
Offensively, Siena made 14 of 29 3s, as Pickett and Seymour each made four.
“We were just sticking with what we do,” Seymour said. “Sticking with things we’re good at and not venturing off into things we don’t [want to] do.”
Cal Poly came into the game taking an average of 25-plus shots per game from downtown, but only took 14 against Siena.
“It’s been our defensive focus since we got here in May,” Christian said of chasing opponents off the 3-point line. “It just showed up a little bit today.”
Long-term, Siena needs to make defensive efforts similar to Saturday’s more commonplace. After watching his Saints struggle so much, though, during the season's first two months on that end of the court, Christian said it was a welcome sight to see the defensive performance Siena delivered against Cal Poly.
“I can’t smile any brighter,” Christian said.
Crowe 5-5 0-0 13, Carr 0-1 0-0 0, Hollingsworth 6-7 0-1 12, Fields 5-15 0-0 11, Garrick 4-10 0-0 11, Alexander 0-2 0-0 0, Rice 0-0 0-0 0, Jaakkola 1-1 0-0 2, Garoza 0-0 0-0 0, Ballard 0-4 0-0 0, Niziol 2-7 1-1 5. Totals: 23-52 1-2 54.
Fisher 11-19 3-6 26, Degnan 2-4 0-0 6, Pickett 6-12 0-2 16, Seymour 4-9 0-0 12, Darwiche 1-1 0-0 3, Bayer 0-0 0-0 0, Smithen 1-2 2-2 5, Diamond 0-0 0-0 0, Ratliff 1-4 0-0 3, Tchougang 0-0 4-4 4. Totals: 26-51 9-14 75.
Halftime score: Siena 36, Cal Poly 25. Three-point shooting: Cal Poly 7-14, Siena 14-29. Rebounds: Cal Poly 27 (Carr 6), Siena 30 (Degnan 9). Assists: Cal Poly 13 (Fields 7), Siena 17 (Pickett 11). Turnovers: Cal Poly 14, Siena 9. Total fouls: Cal Poly 18, Siena 10. Attendance: 5,768.