ALBANY — The first chapter to a new era in Siena College men’s basketball closed Sunday night with a too-familiar ending.
For the fourth time in five seasons, Iona ended the Saints’ run in the MAAC Tournament, this time with a 73-57 victory at Times Union Center to send itself to its seventh consecutive league championship game.
“So,” Siena head coach Jamion Christian said, “we came up short.”
In a sense, that’s true — but this season was always about more than a win-loss record.
It was about laying the foundation for better things to come.
Siena didn’t come up short in that regard.
That’s why redshirt senior Kadeem Smithen said the sadness he felt as the final seconds ticked away on Siena’s season, and his college career, didn’t last long beyond the final buzzer. That harsh pain, he said, was replaced with a calm satisfaction.
“Sitting in the locker room, it was just about realizing how far we’ve come. Us seniors, especially,” Smithen said. “Knowing where this team is headed, you feel proud. . . . We’re getting back to our old ways [as a program], and it felt great to put on this jersey and to realize that I was a part of helping that change.”
The start to that change saw Siena finish 17-16 this season after last season’s 8-24 campaign ended with Jimmy Patsos’ resignation as coach and a school investigation into the past coaching staff’s stewardship of the program. In 2018-19, Siena finished with a winning record in a season it was picked to finish last in the MAAC, but Christian focused on the progress the Saints made in changing their culture above their on-court results when asked to examine the season as a whole.
“I would say that I love the amount of love we’ve been able to create within our locker room. I think we’ve created a standard of love and appreciation for everybody in that locker room. That’s different than most places,” Christian said. “That’s something you can build on and that we will build on, and I’m enthusiastic about being able to walk into a locker room tomorrow [and] the day after that where the guys understand the standard of how you treat people in and outside of our program.”
Siena is eligible to play in a national postseason tournament, but Christian said the Saints are only interested in playing in the NCAA tournament or NIT. That meant Sunday’s never-could-get-it-going loss against Iona served as the Saints’ finale. After making 65.1 percent of its shots in Saturday’s quarterfinal win that wrapped up just shy of a half-hour to midnight, Siena never led in Sunday’s semifinal that saw the Saints miss 17 of 22 shots to start things off and three-time defending champion Iona lead by as many as 16 points in the opening 20 minutes.
“It was definitely not what we wanted to do,” Siena freshman Jalen Pickett said. “We felt like we were getting the shots we wanted to. We weren’t turning the ball over that much. [Shots] just weren’t falling for us. Sometimes, that happens.”
Pickett concluded his MAAC Rookie of the Year season with 15 points, seven rebounds and eight assists to lead the Saints. Senior Evan Fisher added 15 points before getting ejected after being called for a flagrant foul and a technical in quick succession with 2:48 to go.
Fisher received a standing ovation as he departed. He stopped in his retreat to the locker room to acknowledge the cheers with a wave.
“It’s been an amazing four years,” Fisher said. “Just wanted to soak in that moment.”
Later, he added: “From the bottom of my heart, it was the time of my life playing here. Siena means a lot to me, so I’m very thankful for my years here.”
Iona (No. 1, 16-15) led 35-22 at halftime and Siena (No. 5, 17-16) never could get closer than 11 points in the second half. Junior Asante Gist led Iona with 22 points, while senior Rickey McGill scored 18 and junior E.J. Crawford added 16.
“Siena always plays hard, is well-coached, did a nice job — but tonight was our night,” said Iona head coach Tim Cluess, whose team will play sixth-seeded Monmouth in Monday’s 9 p.m. championship game.
Christian called a pair of timeouts in the first half, including one only 100 seconds into the game after a 7-0 Iona game-starting run. He said he “recognized that our team wasn’t in the right place,” perhaps because of playing a draining game against Rider the prior night.
“It’s almost, like, heartbreaking [to watch] because I know what they can do,” Christian said. “I know the kind of players they are and I know how badly they want it.”
For the game, Siena made 22 of 59 shots and 8 of 28 3-pointers. Iona was 26 of 53 overall and 9 of 20 from 3.
Christian said the returning Saints will take a week off to decompress and begin the process of getting healthy after a grueling season.
As for next season?
The program’s rebuilding phase, Pickett said, is complete.
“We’re going to come back with a MAAC chip next year,” Pickett said.
Seymour 3-9 0-0 9, Fisher 6-18 3-4 15, Degnan 3-5 0-0 7, Camper 1-5 1-2 3, Pickett 6-14 1-1 15, Ratliff 0-0 0-0 0, Huerter 0-0 0-0 0, Bayer 0-0 0-0 0, Morastoni 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 22-59 5-7 57.
Agee 3-9 0-0 6, McGill 5-10 5-6 18, Crawford 6-12 2-4 16, Gist 7-13 5-6 22, Perez 4-6 0-0 8, Ristanovic 1-3 0-0 3, Maxwell 0-0 0-0 0, Hudson 0-0 0-0 0, Rhem 0-0 0-2 0. Totals: 26-53 12-18 73.
Halftime score: Iona 35, Siena 22. Three-point shooting: Siena 8-28, Iona 9-20. Rebounds: Siena 30 (Degnan 8), Iona 37 (Agee 13). Assists: Siena 13 (Pickett 8), Iona 11 (McGill, Gist 3). Turnovers: Siena 6, Iona 8. Total fouls: Siena 15, Iona 8. Technical fouls: Fisher. Ejections: Fisher. Attendance: 4,918.