Cornell and Siena may both be mid-majors from upstate New York hoping to return to their heights of five years ago, but their 2014-15 seasons could hardly be more different. The Saints entered with high expectations, picked second in the MAAC after winning last year’s College Basketball Invitational, but they struggled to a 3-6 start; the Big Red, on the other hand, rebounded from a 2-26 campaign to win half of their first 10 games. Both narratives continued at the Times Union Center on Tuesday, as Cornell exploded after halftime to top the hosts 75-57.
The pace was fast from the beginning, as the Big Red showed a full-court press while Siena countered with its usual aggressive defense. But the scoreboard lagged behind, as the two sides combined to shoot 1-for-15 on threes before halftime. Neither team led by more than two possessions in the first period, which concluded with Cornell up 27-26 on 35 possessions.
Shortly after the break, Cornell broke open the game with hotter outside shooting. Shonn Miller hit his team’s first three, Robert Hatter drew a three-point shooting foul, and Devin Cherry sank a trey off Jojo Fallas’s one-touch pass to cap an 11-3 run. From there, it was a battle of attrition; both teams drew 28 free throws in Tuesday’s physical game, but the Big Red held Siena to 27% shooting in the second half while pulling away with acrobatic layups on the other end.
“We’re a work in progress, and we’re a team that’s getting better. It was good to see us in the second half come out and play like the team I think we’re capable of,” Cornell coach Bill Courtney said.
Miller, a senior on the short list of Ivy League Player of the Year candidates, paced the visitors with 26 points on 9-for-18 shooting. The 6’7” forward is at his best in the paint but can also score from outside, making a three-pointer and a pair of 15-footers in Tuesday’s second half. He added a season-high 15 rebounds, earning his third double-double of the season (though he would have three more if humans used a base-nine counting system).
Though his 16.2 ppg lead Cornell, Miller’s impact is felt just as strongly on the other side of the ball. He’s a defensive stat-stuffer, ranking in the top 100 nationally in defensive rebound rate while racking up blocks and steals, but also a strong one-on-one defender. Matched up with Rob Poole, Siena’s leading scorer and a natural guard, Miller held Poole to six points on 2-12 shooting. “Shonn’s used to guarding post guys, or athletic frontcourt guys. So having to guard a shooter was a little different for him,” Courtney said. “I thought he did a terrific job of staying attached to [Poole] and not letting him get a whole bunch of open looks.”
After ranking second-to-last nationally in defensive efficiency last season, per KenPom.com, Cornell is roughly average on that end this year. Much of that success can be ascribed to Miller, who missed all of last year with a shoulder injury. But it also reflects the improvement of holdovers — such as Robert Hatter, who has become a pesky ball-hawk, and shotblocking center David Onuorah — and the return of Galal Cancer, who also sat out last season.
Playing on the court where he won three high school section championships at Christian Brothers Academy, Cancer battled foul trouble and 2-for-7 shooting on Tuesday, but he had two steals and four assists as one of Cornell’s most willing passers off the dribble. “It almost felt like I was back in high school again,” he said.
While Cornell has been boosted by returning players, Siena is struggling in the wake of its own recent injuries. After Imoh Silas tore his ACL before the season and Brett Bisping had toe surgery this month, forward Lavon Long sprained his ankle last week and missed the last two games. The Saints are now on a four-game losing streak, and the preseason optimism has faded.
“I was reading the paper, and I looked at the Indiana Pacers, and they were 8-19. They were in the conference finals last year, and they had a guy leave, and they had a guy get hurt. Now I haven’t seen a highlight with them this year. Maybe we’re the Indiana Pacers,” Siena coach Jimmy Patsos said. “Some guys have to pick it up when other guys are down. That’s why I mentioned the Pacers, because I don’t know who’s picking it up for them.”
The Saints’ injuries have particularly hit their frontcourt; only two scholarship forwards were available on Tuesday night. Without much size, Siena’s defense has suffered, allowing at least 1.08 points per possession in each of its last four losses.
With the rest of MAAC play around the corner — Siena hosts Bucknell Sunday before resuming its conference slate Jan. 2 — the Saints don’t have much time to find their footing. According to Patsos (who got a second-half technical for protesting a series of shooting fouls), that means they must move on from their poor injury luck instead of using it as an excuse. “We could come in last in the MAAC if we don’t change, in my opinion,” he said.