Just six weeks ago, Nico Clareth almost single-handedly buried Fairfield at the Times Union Center, leading a 27-4 first-half run, and then when the Stags had somewhat amazingly come all the way back to tie it, hit a few more big shots to make sure Siena held on 80-73.
In all, the talented Clareth finished with a career-high 33 points, and it seemed like both the sophomore who was a MAAC All-Rookie selection a year ago and the team had turned a corner after a tough start.
Then Siena lost six of its next seven games, and Clareth scored just 24 in the last three.
After that, Jimmy Patsos played him just 17 minutes against Saint Peter’s, but the Saints won. Then, he was in and out quickly against Quinnipiac and Siena won again. Soon after, Clareth decided to take a leave of absence from the team, just in time for the return game with Fairfield at Webster Bank Arena.
Far from in deep trouble, Siena turned up its defense, didn’t let the Stags get out and run, and eventually suffocated them 63-54 for the Saints’ first road victory of the season (previously 0-10).
For you statistics folk, there are plenty of confounding variables and causation does not necessarily mean correlation, meaning just because Siena is recently playing better as Clareth’s time on the court decreases doesn’t mean they still can’t use him on the floor at some point the rest of the season.
But for now, Siena has won three straight, is up to 4-3 in conference, and is on the upswing on the rollercoaster that is the MAAC this season. Meanwhile, Fairfield is heading in the other direction, losers of two straight home games and back at .500 (3-3). They can take solace, however, in the fact that there still seems to be a few turns in the track before we get to Albany in March.
What else did we learn in Bridgeport Sunday?:
- Success with defense
Siena (7-11, 4-3) just did a phenomenal job all day long on the defensive end, first not letting Fairfield (8-7, 3-3) get out and run to get open looks and then shadowing Tyler Nelson and Curtis Cobb all over the three-point line. Nelson finished with just 13 points on 4-11 shooting, while Cobb – 10 days after scoring 46 at Manhattan – was held without a three-pointer, finishing with 5 points on 2-8 shooting.
“They were following the gameplan,” Siena coach Jimmy Patsos said. “They were going under screens on the point guard (Jerome Segura), they were doubling Cobb and Nelson, and not giving them any good looks. That’s one of the highest scoring guard combinations I’ve seen in this league and I’ve been in the MAAC a long time.”
Fairfield finished with just 0.86 points per possession, moving Siena to second defensively in the MAAC (0.951 ppp). It’s amazing to look back at two years ago, when the Saints were not only dead last in the MAAC in that category, but 333rd nationally. They still seem to struggle shooting the ball consistently, and that’s going to be a problem (although they got a decent boost off the bench from Khalil Richard and Evan Fisher), but at least Patsos and Siena can hang their hats on defense and go from there.
“We’re not that good of a three-point shooting team, so you have to take good twos,” Patsos said. “If you’re going to make 20 threes, you have to make 30 twos to get as many points, so you better be efficient. They’re the best transition team in the league, they throw it ahead, and they shoot the threes, and we just tried to take that away.”
2) Slow, slower, slowest
Sunday’s game finished with 63 possessions, slowest of the season and second-slowest since 2015 for the Stags. In many ways, it looked like the Fairfield teams that struggled in 2013-14 and 2014-15, looking for any decent shots in half-court sets and not really getting any.
In some ways, it might serve as a good reminder to how things used to be and why Fairfield starting pushing tempo to begin with, but they face another hot team that will try to slow them down Tuesday against Saint Peter’s, who has won three of four (including one over Monmouth) and is 4-2 in the MAAC. The Stags were just 3-22 from three-point range Sunday, so also on the positive side, it’s hard to see them do that again.
“Credit them for playing hard, but there’s some looks there that we thought should have dropped,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “We have to share it a little bit more, there were some possessions where we could have gotten better shots and we didn’t. Obviously, Curtis and Tyler have made a name for themselves so opponents are going to get after them. We do a lot of that in practice, so it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, but we just couldn’t quite get it going offensively.”
3) Wacky MAAC
Either Monmouth or Canisius will lead the way after they play each other Monday, and everybody else in the league other than Saint Peter’s have at least three losses. And everyone has two wins after Manhattan has won a couple in a row.
The Hawks were the preseason favorite and still look to have the best shot at capturing the regular season title, but it is as balanced a lead as you’ll find, which means – as both coaches said after the game – you can’t get too high or too low, because the next game might be completely different than the last.
“As a coach and as their leader, I’m just going game by game,” Johnson said. “We had a tough game today. I loved our defense. I’m just grading us how we were today and then we go tomorrow and then play Saint Peter’s. But we have to stay balanced and not get too low or too high.”