Stag party cancelled: Siena makes comeback, heads to NCAA Tournament for third straight time
Siena faced a double-digit deficit as shots misfired, the defense was sliced, and 10,679 green and gold followers sat in their Times Union Center seats silent and confused.
But does it matter? It’s Siena. The Saints are the unchallenged, two-time defending MAAC Champion. They’re going to make a run and blow out Fairfield.
That run was not completely momentum-shifting, as Fairfield fought and clawed for every second of the game and had a chance to win it with 1.7 seconds left in regulation. The run was almost all-for-not, but Fairfield chance for a win bounce off the rim and send the game into overtime, where the Saints used experience to march on.
The Saints was down by as much as 15 points in the first half and was down 11 after the first 20 minutes. As they’ve done this tournament, they shook off the early struggles and got themselves back into contest. In overtime, Alex Franklin and company set the tone early and never gave up the lead.
The result was Siena third MAAC Championship in a row. The Saints (27-6) knocked off Fairfield (22-10) 72-65 to advance to the NCAA Tournament once again.
“Although there may have been some people that were a little surprised we were back on our heels,” said Siena head coach Fran McCaffrey. “I knew what this game was going to be… They thing that we had going for us was we had tremendous experience, and we had a lot of time. What we didn’t do was panic when we got our ears pinned back.”
It would have been a test of heart for any team to come back from the deficit at hand, but Siena’s character shone in the second half. The team was down 11 points at halftime – the third-straight MAAC tournament game Siena trailed at half – and Fairfield was clawing to keep that lengthy lead.
“There was no point where it was getting away from us,” said Siena forward Alex Franklin. “We kept composure and kept playing. We’ve all been through it before.”
But you can’t fight off experience, especially when it has prevailed in many situation like this before. Senior forward Edwin Ubiles showed up to score huge baskets during the run. Mr. Dish Ronald Moore sank big shots to go along with his 6 assists. Franklin, dominant all-year long against bigger forwards, reached within himself and tallied another double double (22 points, 12 rebounds) against Fairfield’s Anthony Johnson and Ryan Olander.
“There’s some talent here, but tonight I think what we saw was character,” McCaffrey said.
The run started near the beginning of the second half. Down 43-30, Franklin, the MAAC Tournament MVP, scored six points on a Siena 10-2 run to get the Saints within five points (45-40) at the first media timeout.
It was then Ubiles’ turn. The forward stole a Fairfield pass and drove down for a 360 hammer that got the Saint Bernard faithful ecstatic.
Desperate, Fairfield guard Derrick Needham made arguably his first freshman mistake of the tournament. Guard Ronald Moore pressured the guard and forced a turnover, and before Moore could relay a pass to an open Clarence Jackson, Needham grabbed him and committed an intentional foul with 12:27 left. Moore hit two free throws to narrow the gap even more.
Fairfield responded with four straight to get a 53-47 lead, but Ubiles responded with three-straight baskets to tie the game. On the Ubiles 6-0 run, Siena’s infamous trap began to dictate tempo and fluster Needham and the Stags. A Mike Evanovich turnover preceded a 5-second violation by the Needham, both resulting in Ubiles buckets. The senior forward finished with 27 points and 7 rebounds.
“I thought we had some costly turnovers,” said Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley. “We have 3-to-5 straight turnovers that led to run outs, and that was really the game. We were on our heels.”
Though Fairfield’s rhythm was lost, Cooley’s kids kept fighting. First sophomore Sean Crawford who was 1-for-7 at the point, hit a huge 3-pointer from the right wing to give the Stags a 58-55 lead with 3:27 left. Siena answered with baskets from Frankin and Moore to take a 60-58 lead with 2:08 left, but guard Colin Nickerson made a clutch drive along the baseline to lay the ball in with 54.2 seconds left.
The game remained tied as Fairfield got the ball after a Rossiter miss with 24 seconds left. Siena, with four fouls to give, used them all and wound the clock down to 1.7 seconds left. Fairfield had a chance to win, but a Nickerson 3-point shot from the left corner hit back iron to sent the game into overtime.
“We gave it away,” Evanovich said. “They play well and made plays when they needed to, but we should have kept control.”
Siena took over in the extra session. Franklin quickly sank a lay-up 14 seconds in and gave the Saints the lead. The Stags got within two points on two occasions in overtime, but consistent play from Franklin kept momentum in Siena’s favor.
With the win, Siena will now look to continue its NCAA Tournament first-round winning streak. The Saints knocked off Vanderbilt two years ago and beat Ohio State in an overtime thriller last season in Columbus.
“We have a couple days to settle down,” McCaffrey said. “This is obviously a great emotional rush for everybody. The players can enjoy it, we can look forward to Sunday’s selection show, and then we go to work.”