I’m sorry to break this to you kids, but life isn’t fair, hard work doesn’t always mean success, and the best team doesn’t always win.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Siena was not the best team Sunday night at the Times Union Center, it most certainly was, scoring 64 points in the second half to erase a 17-point deficit and beat top-seeded Monmouth, 89-85 at the Times Union Center.
Nico Clareth, who was so injured he couldn’t play 24 hours earlier and only managed three hobbling minutes in the first half, scored 27 points in the final 17 minutes of the game, hitting 7-9 from three and at one point making five straight in a three-minute span. Even when he was closely guarded, he hit a turnaround in the final minute to seal the victory, and his performance – rightfully so – will join the annals of MAAC lore long after he graduates.
“When I was a young kid, I heard the story about Willis Reed and I thought he had 30 points, he really only had two in that game,” Siena coach Jimmy Patsos said. “Nico couldn’t walk two days ago.”
Said Clareth: “I think it’s just my competitive nature. I got angry at halftime with the score, and we weren’t going out like that.”
Siena is a veteran team full of seniors (Clareth is not one of them) who won a CBI Tournament three years ago, yet had little to show for it since, even with the MAAC Tournament in Albany for the last three seasons. And what a comeback it was Sunday for them and their fans which grew louder as the game wore on. The Saints were down 44-27 with 17:49 left before Clareth started his shooting exhibition and the team rallied behind him. Siena made nine straight shots to get back into the game and shot 19-28 (8-11 from three) the rest of the way.
Javion Ogunyemi finished with 21 points, Marquis Wright 20 and eight assists, while the always consistent Brett Bisping chipped in with 13 points and eight rebounds. They are all seniors, who knew their careers would have been over with a loss and responded accordingly.
But, but, but, the elephant in the room is asking for the microphone, so I’d better let him speak.
Monmouth (27-6) had won 17 straight games and proved themselves over an arduous 20-game conference schedule, finishing at 18-2, four games above their nearest competitor (Saint Peter’s), and a full six games in front of Sunday’s opponent, Siena (17-16). The Hawks had won both regular season meetings as well.
And yet, here we were, with the conference’s lone NCAA Tournament (most likely) bid on the line at the Times Union Center, home of Siena, the No. 4 seed. Seems a little unfair, huh? But before we commence our outrage, it’s always important to examine why the MAAC chose to bring the “neutral” tournament back to Albany after trying Bridgeport, Conn. and true neutral site Springfield, Mass.
I loved Springfield because it was half the distance from my home that Albany is, but the crowds were, let’s face it, sparse. While the connection with the Hall of Fame was nice, the MAAC brass knew that Siena: a) has a big arena that could accommodate everyone, and b) dominates everyone else in the conference in attendance, partly because of years of previous success, and partly due to the fact that the fans like their basketball.
“While it wasn’t our home court, we had a lot of fans here and that really spurred us on in the second half,” Patsos said. “They (the fans) deserve this. These people are rabid basketball fans and there were 7,000 of them at our last (regular season) home game. They deserve to have the tournament here. They appreciate good basketball here. They are a passionate fan base and they know their basketball and I respect that.”
The first sentence above may qualify Patsos for a job as a White House spokesman, but it’s hard to argue with the rest of his statement. If you wanted the most fans to show up at a MAAC Tournament and watch the games, you put it in Albany. Monday’s final should have a massive crowd to see Siena and Iona (although to be fair, Monmouth brought a lot of fans a pretty good distance), and that will bring great optics to ESPN and a national audience, as opposed to a 75% empty arena with echoes in Springfield.
I love so many things about March. A 27-6 Monmouth team probably missing out on the NCAA tournament because it lost a game isn't one of them
— Craig Meyer (@CraigMeyerPG) March 5, 2017
That doesn’t soothe Monmouth much, however. The Hawks are two-time regular season champs with 53 wins overall and a conference record of 35-5 over that span (seven games better than anyone else, with Iona second), and will not get to play in the NCAA Tournament, the biggest basketball extravaganza in all the world. If you can’t feel for two-time MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson, Je’lon Hornbeak, Chris Brady, and Josh James, who built the program virtually from scratch (Monmouth was 10-21, 5-13 in the NEC just four seasons ago), then your empathy chip is malfunctioning.
“We wanted to end with a conference championship, and it hurts,” Robinson said. “I’ll be able to look at my guys and say they gave everything they had and gave their best shot. That’s a brotherhood we’ll have for a lifetime no matter what happened here.”
Monmouth has changed my life for the better, thank you for everything. The ups, and downs, highs, and lows..in thankful for it all 💙🐦
— Justin D. Robinson™ (@Callmescoop12) March 6, 2017
What made Sunday’s second half so stunning was that while Monmouth is known for their up-tempo play, they have also played tremendous defense, 73rd nationally this season in efficiency (27th in eFG% defense after being 68th and 26th in those two categories, respectively, last season). The Hawks held Siena to 0.69 ppp in the first half before Clareth began his heroics, and just refused to miss, settling it for an outrageous 1.57 ppp (it also helped that Siena only committed five turnovers after 13 in the first half).
“Watch the tape. A man went crazy in the second half,” Rice said. “They had seniors, too. That’s a good team.”
To his credit, Rice took the high road on the home court issue after the game as well.
“Give Siena all the credit,” Rice said. “Their kids kept fighting and fighting and they deserved to win. We are really, really crushed about it. We had a lot of things go our way this season. Tonight, we got caught by a team that outplayed for 20 minutes, and no one’s outplayed us for a long time, but tonight they did. It is unfair? No, that’s the rules. No one is going to take away what we did. We’re still learning how to do this. These kids were amazing. Just tonight, it wasn’t enough.”
And if you lead the home court elephant out of the room with some peanuts, it was a tremendous college basketball game for a neutral party, from Clareth’s performance to favored Monmouth battling like hell to overcome it, and Siena finally hanging on in the end.
“That’s as good a basketball game as I’ve ever seen in the MAAC,” Patsos said. “Me and King just hugged afterward. That was just a great game. I don’t care about BPI and RPI and all that. They deserve to get in (the NCAA Tournament).”
We who cover mid-major basketball are biased, but we know the obstacles Monmouth had in scheduling after last season (which didn’t get them an at-large berth anyway) and how hard it is to go 27-6 with the amount of road games they play. Sadly, though, it seems the chances of Monmouth making it to the NCAAs are slim and none with slim grabbing his coat to leave. However, coaches have long told us that the NCAA Tournament, while great, is not everything, and hopefully the accomplishments of Monmouth’s two-year run won’t be lost to the back closet of history.
Monmouth falls 89-85 at Siena, so its reward for back-to-back 27-win league title seasons will be two straight NIT bids. Absolutely brutal.
— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) March 5, 2017
“Guys, we hadn’t lost since Jan. 2,” Rice said. “Today, they finally got us. They played great. If we played again, we would play them the exact same way. Tonight, they hit all the shots. That’s life. As I told them after the game, the Lord did not think we were ready for that next step. Only get things put in front of you that you can handle. We’re not going anywhere. We have a program now that is getting closer. This is the hardest step to take, and we’ll be right back next year trying to get it done.”
Maybe someday the system will be fair and all regular season conference champions will go to the NCAA Tournament, but you and I both know, that horse left the barn long ago and is watching all these exciting games this week on ESPN like the rest of us.
So fair or unfair, them’s the rules.
For at least the next two seasons, if Monmouth wants to go to the NCAA Tournament, it will have to win at least three games in Albany on the first weekend of March.
And they didn’t.