Under two minutes left on Sunday, the Saints needed another crucial possession, not only to prove they can pull off their first road win of 2014, but also execute their flex offense.
Freshman Marquis Wright was in a moment of trouble after Coleman Johnson hedged a ball screen at the top of the key set by Brett Bisping. Johnson’s help of his teammate Marcus Gilbert forced Wright to toss it just over the sophomore to Bisping.
As Stags senior Mo Barrow rotated from the post to Bisping at the left wing, Bisping quickly fronted the ball to freshman Lavon Long. Johnson, who had to rotate down to post up on Long, received help from Justin Jenkins on the freshman. Long dribbled, took a step and instead of going up with it, made a bounce pass down the baseline.
The pass reached sophomore Ryan Oliver, who stepped back and was open in the right corner. Jenkins rushed to contest the shot, but Oliver’s three-pointer was nothing but net. Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos emphatically called timeout as Oliver’s clutch shot put Siena up seven with 1:34 remaining.
Junior Rob Poole, who was standing under the basket fighting for a rebound that didn’t come when Oliver’s three-pointer went in, said Oliver is one of the best shooters on the team.
“We were so excited, screaming, yelling, it was a huge shot,” Poole said. “That was the dagger right there for them, hitting that three. When he hits those shots, man we love Ryan, we’re so happy for him. He’s probably the best shooter on the team, so when he makes that shot, man it’s over, you got coach yelling, screaming. We’re excited.”
The first-year head coach of the Saints talks plenty about how the group he inherited has bought in to his flex system, no one is a better example of that than Oliver, who has come back from the holiday break with a vengeance.
The sophomore made a career-high three three-pointers on Sunday and has made nine of his 19 three-point attempts and already scored 35 of his 64 points this season after the break.
“Ryan’s playing great as of late especially,” Bisping said. “He’s been coming out ready to go. I know he gets extra shots all the time. He deserves it, he works hard for it.”
After making three-pointers on back to back touches, Patsos said he had no problem running plays so Oliver could get open looks. The first year Siena head coach, an avid fan of the NBA in the 1980’s and 90’s, said that he compares Oliver to former Laker shooting guard Michael Cooper.
“He’s bought in, big Lakers fan, he’s from L.A., but that was a big three,” Patsos said of Oliver’s late three-pointer. “It’s just funny how these kids want to be (someone else) and I’m like, no you want to be Kobe and you want to be Michael Jordan, you’re Bill Laimbeer and you’re Michael Cooper, but that’s okay.”
As the pressure increased for the Saints to hold onto a lead they grabbed for the first time since 4-1 with less than 11 minutes remaining, they continued to make passes and execute their sets offensively against an increasingly aggressive Fairfield defense.
“They’re buying into the flex, the two play. It’s not an easy thing to cover,” Patsos said. “It looks basic, [St. Peter’s head coach] John Dunne after last game said I hate you and he’s like my best friend in the league. He goes, ‘They’re buying in to your simple little offense, that has a lot of quirks to it,’ but it’s hard. It wears them out guarding it.”
Bisping said that the freshman point guard Wright has done a great job of running the Saints sets.
“Marquis does a good job of running the offense and getting the ball to the right people at the right times,” Bisping said. “I feel like he brings a sense of calmness to the court. He’s not exactly an emotional player, but he’s someone you can trust with the ball.”
Part what has caused teams trouble stopping the Saints has been opponents paying a lot of attention to the junior Poole, who leads the Saints with 15.1 points per game and he said that he has tried to adjust his game in conference play.
“The entire year he’s been doing that,” Poole said of Patsos pushing for him to take more shots. “Non-conference games I had a lot more open shots going up it seems, but now it’s a little different now that they have the scout, so hedging off, doubling me a little bit, so I’m hesitant to shoot because I don’t want to force up shots, but coach yells at me for not shooting the ball and I have to start shooting the ball more.”
Poole’s even threat of a shot on the catch of a pass beyond the line draws almost every defender in the MAAC’s attention. His up fake drew Stags senior defender Barrow into him in the second half and Poole drew a three shot foul. The junior made all 10 of his free throws, tying a career-high set during his freshman year. Later in the second half, Poole drew a double team on his catch, so he pump faked and tossed a pass to Bisping for a dunk where he was fouled. On two free throws by the sophomore, the Saints picked a lead they would not relinquish the rest of the afternoon.
The hot shooting of Oliver may help Poole the most, as opponents will have to worry about another three-point threat and hopefully they’ll increase their 33% three-point field goal shooting, which ranks sixth in conference play. However, the 87 three-pointers made are the lowest in the conference.
Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.