ALBANY — The rebuilding project Jamion Christian accepted when he became the Siena College men’s basketball head coach last May went beyond making a team better.
He recognized — and has acknowledged several times this season — that the Saints also needed to regain trust with their fanbase after a dismal 2017-18 season closed with the program the subject of a school investigation, the latest piece in a program’s fall from the heights Fran McCaffery led it to with a streak of three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament that ended in 2010.
So it was noteworthy Saturday night at Times Union Center that Siena, with a 53-40 win against Manhattan, registered its first three-game winning streak since late in the 2016-17 season.
But it was more important that seats were filled as that happened. As the Saints moved above .500 in MAAC play for the first time this season, an announced crowd of 7,146 — a capacity crowd for how Times Union Center is configured for Saints regular-season games this season — watched the action.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to be the head coach here and to coach these guys is because I felt like we had such a resource with our fans,” said Christian, whose program’s average attendance was at 5,464 heading into Saturday’s game. “People are so passionate about it.
Christian added: “I was really happy our guys were able to respond.”
A few times this season, @JamionChristian has talked about his @SienaMBB program’s need to rebuild its trust with its fans.— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 27, 2019
On a night that 7000+ showed up at @TUCenter, here’s his take on how the Saints are doing in that regard. #MAACHoops pic.twitter.com/uQGAnmlscL
They did, producing another stingy defensive effort in allowing 40 points for the first time since facing NJIT in 2006. Manhattan scored 0.75 points per possession, as the Jaspers shot 15 of 41 and produced 15 turnovers vs. eight assists.
“We want to hold them under 50, so 40 is great,” said Siena redshirt senior Kadeem Smithen, whose team held Fairfield to 48 points in its previous win.
And an enthusiastic home crowd — the first for the Saints including more than 7,000 fans since their triple-overtime loss last year against Monmouth — played its role in providing extra energy for Siena.
“Anybody is lying if they say a big crowd doesn’t affect the game. That was awesome,” Siena senior Evan Fisher said. “That’s one of the coolest things about playing here at Siena. That’s what makes Siena special.”
Before Saturday, though, this season’s team had only once played in front of a home crowd of more than 6,000 fans.
“We’ve been playing hard and we’ve been preparing for the moment,” Siena freshman Jalen Pickett said. “As long as we keep winning, more people will keep coming to the games.”
While neither Siena (4-3 MAAC, 9-11 overall) nor Manhattan (2-6, 4-16) excelled offensively, Pickett continued to provide reasons for fans to cheer. The star freshman who is on his way to winning his fifth consecutive — and seventh overall — MAAC Rookie of the Week award scored a game-high 18 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished two assists and collected four steals in 38 minutes of action. He had a pair of dunks in the second half, too.
Also for Siena, freshman Sloan Seymour added eight points, sophomore Manny Camper and Smithen each had seven points, and Fisher scored six. Camper added a game-high seven rebounds.
Jalen Pickett was asked about his dunks tonight.— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) January 27, 2019
Apparently, his previous lack of dunking has been a running joke within the @SienaMBB program, as demonstrated by the reactions of Jamion Christian & Kadeem Smithen#MAACHoops pic.twitter.com/2yNKskBXNF
“The guys in that locker room are special because they buy into [our coaching staff’s] message and they listen to what we’re telling them to do,” Christian said. “They put the work in every single day. It’s just a really special group of guys that have been able to do just do whatever we’ve asked them to do. I’ve never been around a group of guys like that. Our connection is better than any team I’ve been with, and that’s including NCAA tournament teams.”
And the goal is for Christian to turn Siena back into an NCAA tournament team during his tenure with the Saints.
“We’re working to get this program back to where it was, and we’re working to make this program better than it’s ever been,” Christian said. “But we’re working at it, and it’s a process. And it’s great to have fans and people that support us, that can appreciate that process and can appreciate that growth. They’re on here early, and we’re going to keep making them proud.”
Williams 2-4 1-2 5, Reynolds 4-8 2-2 12, Buchanan 0-2 0-0 0, Mack 1-4 0-0 2, Hinckson 0-2 1-2 1, Stewart 3-7 0-0 9, Schreier 0-0 0-0 0, Capuano 1-4 0-0 2, Greene 3-7 0-0 6, Ebube 1-2 0-0 3, Diallo 0-1 0-0 0, Usilo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 15-41 4-6 40.
Seymour 3-10 0-0 8, Fisher 3-8 0-0 6, Degnan 2-4 0-0 5, Pickett 8-14 0-0 18, Darwiche 0-1 0-0 0, Bayer 0-1 0-0 0, Camper 3-6 1-2 7, Smithen 3-4 0-0 7, Tchougang 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 23-49 1-2 53.
Halftime: Siena 23, Manhattan 17. Three-point shooting: Manhattan 6-17, Siena 6-12. Rebounds: Manhattan 29 (Capuano 5), Siena 24 (Camper 7). Assists: Manhattan 8 (Mack 4), Siena 10 (Fisher, Degnan 3). Turnovers: Manhattan 15, Siena 6. Total fouls: Manhattan 9, Siena 8. Attendance: 7,146.