Despite a better record, RPI and conference affiliation, the Fresno State Bulldogs don't hold home court advantage in this best-of-three CBI finals series. With a 6-9 road record, the Bulldogs needed to win in their one home game to have much hope.
The Saints scored first before going on a nearly four minute long drought. It seemed like the Bulldogs had the Saints right where they wanted them, down and out at the beginning of the game.
But the Saints made the home crowd nervous, and silent, after that. A quick 9-0 run completely turned the game around. With 14:06 left to play, Siena held an 11-6 lead.
Just as quickly as the game turned around in their favor, it turned back towards the Bulldogs. Like the early game dry spell, the Saints couldn't make a shot to save their life. Actually, they had a hard time even getting a shot off in time. Fresno State's athleticism was too much for Siena.
The two droughts were eerily similar to each other. They were similar in length, composure and in both the Saints shot 0-5 from the field.
The game slowed and the Bulldogs took full advantage. Alex Davis, Paul Watson and Tyler Johnson made it clear their team was more athletic by throwing down three highlight reel dunks in the first half. Davis was especially effective down the stretch, his effort led to a 32-26 Fresno State lead at the break.
The Bulldogs shot a very nice 50% from the field in the first, which makes the Saints' 36% look very bad by comparison. However, the Saints missed ten shots during their two first half droughts, and just 11 during the rest of the half. Siena just needed to play with more consistency.
The Bulldogs extended their lead to twelve points over the opening moments of the second half. Just after falling into their largest deficit of the game, the Saints seemed doomed by an elbow to the face. With 16:20 remaining, Lavon Long was turning with the ball when his elbow connected with Cezar Gurrero's head. It wasn't noticed initially, but after review the officials called a flagrant one foul on Long. He would foul out of the game eleven minutes later.
Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos, who appeared unusually calm while speaking with his team at halftime, flew into his usual state of hyper-excitement following the foul. With Patsos wildly encouraging his team from the sideline, and a smothering press employed in the Fresno State backcourt, the Saints stormed back once again.
Led by Rob Poole's three, the Saints recorded seven steals in the game, many of which came out of a full court press.
With 7:21 left to play, for the first time since the middle of the first half, Siena held the lead. A Ryan Oliver 3-pointer made it 50-49 Saints.
On the next possession Cezar Gurrero answered with a three of his own and the two teams played a close game for the remainder. Siena once again went cold, but unlike in the first, so did Fresno State. Neither team scored from the field over the final 5:51.
The referees, seemingly not happy that literally all the scoring down the stretch came as a result of their whistles, tried to decide the game in the final seconds.
Down two with 13 seconds left, the Fresno State tried to foul ballhandler Rob Poole. Two Bulldogs converged on him near the sideline at center court. It looked like a football collision, but the referees saw it as a travel.
Fresno State ball. Trying to tie the game, Marvelle Harris drove into the lane and right into Brett Bisping. The referees saw it as a charge, Siena Ball. The Bulldogs then fouled Poole to try and extend the game, but he hit both free throws and the Saints escaped with a 61-57 victory.
Two home games against Fresno State remain for Siena, a win in either would clinch a CBI victory for the Saints. This is a very, very young Siena squad. Experience in the CBI Finals has been invaluable for young teams in the past, most notably VCU. Following their victory in the 2010 CBI Finals, the Rams ran to the 2011 Final Four.
Can Siena follow that same Cinderella path? We'll find out Wednesday, or Saturday (if need be).