ALBANY — Watching from an unfamiliar place — the bench — Siena College men’s basketball freshman Jalen Pickett wasn’t stressed.
He was saddled with a couple fouls, sure, but he had confidence as he cheered from the bench that his teammates could deliver in his absence.
Which, to put it mildly, is not something that has happened often this season.
“But they play like that all the time in practice,” Pickett said after his team’s 66-57 win Thursday at Times Union Center against Niagara, a game in which the Siena bench offered a season-high 21 points. “It was really just about gaining confidence for them. They showed everybody else tonight what they can do.”
When Pickett, who is averaging a team-high 36.3 minutes per game, went to the bench with foul trouble, Siena led Niagara 18-16 with 7:55 to go in the first half.
And, when Pickett returned to the court to start the second half, the Saints held a 31-24 lead.
“I knew our team would respond that way,” Siena head coach Jamion Christian said.
While Pickett still finished the MAAC win with a team-high 17 points and seven assists, the five-time winner of the conference’s rookie of the week award played a season-low 28 minutes — and the Saints outscored Niagara by 11 points in those dozen minutes without Pickett on the floor.
“They’re growing up. They’re growing up,” repeated Christian as he explained how his other ball-handlers kept the Saints moving forward without Pickett. “They’re accepting the challenges that are ahead. You have to believe before you have results.”
And the results were favorable for Siena (2-3 MAAC, 7-11 overall) against Niagara (1-4, 8-10), as the Saints dominated much of the night after a slow start. Niagara started the game on a 12-2 run, but Siena answered with a matching run and took the lead for good on a basket from redshirt junior Kevin Degnan with 8:42 to go in the first half. Siena led by as many as 20 points in the second half, and never fewer than nine in the final 12:31.
“I just thought our defense wasn’t great those first four minutes,” said Siena senior Evan Fisher, who had 13 points and six rebounds. “We reset right after that.”
Key to Siena’s late surge in the first half and beyond were sophomore Manny Camper, freshman Georges Darwiche and redshirt senior Kadeem Smithen. Camper played a variety of positions, and contributed six points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes; Darwiche provided needed composure handling the ball when Pickett was on the bench; and, Smithen scored 12 of his 13 points in the first half.
“I think it was just the way Georges, Manny and Kadeem really stepped up,” Fisher said of what stuck out to him in the win. “They gave us so much confidence with the way they handled the ball and all made plays. That’s stuff we see every day in practice, though, so that’s no surprise to us.”
“As a group,” Smithen said, “we have confidence in anybody. No matter who is on the floor, we have confidence in that person to make a play.”
For Niagara, junior James Towns scored a game-high 21 points, and senior Marvin Prochet had 15. The Purple Eagles shot 22 of 56 from the field, and only 4 of 22 from 3-point territory.
Siena wasn’t much better from the field — the Saints were 23 of 54 — but made 7 of 17 3s and 13 of 17 from the foul line. Siena’s bench came into the game averaging 10.1 points per game, but played a major role in helping lift the Saints to a win.
“If you’re on the floor and you’ve got an opportunity,” Christian said, “you’ve got to take it.”
Often this season, though, only Pickett has been able to heed that message on the perimeter for the Saints. While there were many positives from Thursday’s win, likely none was more meaningful than the way Siena’s secondary playmakers performed.
“I don’t even want to say that they stepped up,” Christian said. “I thought they made the plays that were right there before them.”
Jalen Pickett on this play: “That’s a different kind of kid right there. He’s my roommate and I love him. ... I thought he actually was going to hit someone with the shoe the way he was holding it. I didn’t know what he was going to do with it.” https://t.co/59cx9VZM9O— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 18, 2019
Siena doesn’t play again until next Thursday at Fairfield. In that contest, Siena will have the chance to even its conference record and match last season’s wins total.
To register back-to-back wins, Christian said, Siena needs contributions from a variety of players like it received against Niagara.
“When we have guys that play aggressive like that,” Christian said, “we have a chance to be really special.”
Prochet 6-15 2-2 15, Robb 4-8 3-4 12, Barton 0-3 0-0 0, Tate 3-7 1-2 7, Towns 8-13 3-4 21, Fragala 0-1 0-0 0, Solomon 1-4 0-0 2, Hammond 0-2 0-0 0, Kuakumensah 0-2 0-0 0, King 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 22-56 9-12 57.
Fisher 6-12 0-0 13, Degnan 4-10 0-0 9, Pickett 5-11 6-6 17, Seymour 2-5 0-0 6, Darwiche 0-2 0-0 0, Camper 0-3 6-9 6, Smithen 5-9 1-2 13, Tchougang 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 23-54 13-17 66.
Halftime score: Siena 31, Niagara 24. Three-point shooting: Niagara 4-22, Siena 7-17. Rebounds: Niagara 32 (Prochet 7), Siena 34 (Camper 11). Assists: Niagara 6 (Six tied with 1), Siena 13 (Pickett 7). Turnovers: Niagara 11, Siena 8. Total fouls: Niagara 16, Siena 14. Attendance: 5,549.