ALBANY — Its lead gone, there was no panic.
Instead, confidence remained.
So after Fairfield made its charge to tie Monday’s MAAC game at Times Union Center, the Siena College men’s basketball team answered with a methodical closing stretch to record its fifth win in six games.
“I just think our buy-in level as an entire team is at an all-time high right now,” Siena redshirt senior Kevin Degnan said after the Saints’ 61-50 victory. “Guys are super-connected on and off the floor, and we all have one goal in mind, which is to play as hard as we can to be the best team we can be.”
The Saints have two road games next, then 4 in a row at home.— Michael Kelly (@ByMichaelKelly) February 5, 2019
There’s a chance to make a serious run up the #MAACHoops standings, but Jamion Christian said the primary focus remains solely on getting better each day. pic.twitter.com/SAFdLOWrVN
Right now, Siena is developing the look of a team capable of contending for a MAAC championship in head coach Jamion Christian’s first season with the Saints. Picked to finish in last place in the MAAC preseason coaches poll, Siena is past the halfway mark of the league season and two games above .500 in a wide-open conference that plays its postseason tournament in its home arena. Siena is tied for third place in the MAAC after its latest win, and is one of only five teams with a winning record.
“But we’re just focused on our next game,” said Siena redshirt senior Kadeem Smithen, whose team next plays Friday at Manhattan.
Siena (6-4, 11-12) showed its sharp focus in closing out Fairfield (4-8, 7-17) in the final leg of its three-games-in-five-days stretch. After the Stags rallied to tie the game at 47 with 10:05 to go, Fairfield didn’t score again until there was 1:32 to go — and after Siena had rattled off eight consecutive points.
While Siena’s tops-in-the-MAAC defense got to work, freshman Jalen Pickett scored the first six points in the Saints’ decisive run.
“It was about time, you know?” Christian joked of Pickett’s offensive spurt. “Nah, he does that — you know what I mean? He just does a great job of playing the game within the game.”
Pickett finished with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists on the first Monday since late December that didn’t include him being named MAAC Rookie of the Week. Pickett won that award five consecutive time before Manhattan’s Samir Stewart earned that honor this week.
“Just taking what the defense gives us,” Pickett said of his personal 6-0 run that came a game after he had a personal 10-0 run in the second half of Siena’s win at Iona. “Just reading the play and trying to make the right play every time down the floor.”
Senior Evan Fisher led Siena with 18 points, while Degnan added 10. Siena shot 23 of 48 from the field and 9 of 16 from 3.
The Saints’ defense, though, was the key as it has often been during the last month for them. Siena has held a dozen consecutive opponents to 70 points or fewer, and has allowed an average of 57.8 points per game during that stretch.
On Monday, Fairfield only managed 18 points in the second half against Siena. The Stags shot 7 of 24 in the final 20 minutes after making 13 of 25 shots in the opening half.
“We stopped giving them 3s and we just started making them play off the bounce more,” Christian said of the difference between the two periods of play for his defense.
“Guys are just doing a great job listening to our coaches and playing extremely hard,” Degnan said. “That’s really all you want.”
Since starting the season 5-10, Siena has won six of eight games. That recent stretch has left the Saints on the verge of making it back to .500 on the season for the first time since Nov. 18 when they were 2-2, but Christian said his team’s recent success represents more than a solid burst of play.
“I wouldn’t say we’re on a run,” Christian said. “I think we’re playing well.”
The Saints, Christian said, are confident.
And they are not content.
“We’re making progress,” Christian said, “but we’ve got a lot more [to make] and we can play a lot better.”
Kasibabu 3-5 0-0 7, Alvarez 2-5 0-0 4, Benning 2-5 0-0 5, Cruz 2-9 1-1 5, Taliaferro 5-12 0-0 14, Kavaliauskas 0-1 0-0 0, Methnani 5-10 0-0 12, Whipple 1-2 0-0 3. Totals: 20-49 1-1 50.
Seymour 3-4 0-0 9, Fisher 8-16 0-0 18, Degnan 4-6 0-1 10, Camper 1-3 3-6 5, Pickett 5-15 1-1 13, Smithen 1-2 2-2 4, Huerter 0-1 0-0 0, Tchougang 1-1 0-0 2, Bayer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 23-48 6-10 61.
Halftime score: Siena 38, Fairfield 32. Three-point shooting: Fairfield 9-24, Siena 9-16. Rebounds: Fairfield 30 (Methnani 7), Siena 26 (Camper 6). Assists: Fairfield 11 (Benning, Cruz 3), Siena 13 (Camper 5). Turnovers: Fairfield 17, Siena 10. Total fouls: Fairfield 12, Siena 10. Attendance: 5,251.