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Siena makes a statement

Saints go 2-0 on a road trip to Connecticut proving that they’re the real deal in the MAAC

Siena big man Eduardo Lane dunks the ball during a 70-61 win over Fairfield
Fairfield Athletics

There had been a confidence around Carmen Maciariello’s Siena team this offseason, even though they’d been picked 6th in the MAAC. This weekend, they made a statement, and the league is now well aware.

Two wins in three days against two good teams on the road, winning in two completely different styles of game, showing all of the traits of a talented and well-coached team, the Saints had one of the most impressive weekends of any team in the country.

The Saints (9-5, 3-0 MAAC) played a back-and-forth game with Quinnipiac, who entered the game 9-4, on Friday. There were 11 lead changes and 12 ties, but the last lead change came with three and a half minutes to go, when sixth-year super senior Andrew Platek canned a triple to put the Saints up 70-67. Friday in Hamden was all about the stars for Siena, especially in the second half. Javian McCollum, who has NBA scouts coming to his games, had 15 of his 25 in the final frame, and Platek scored all 19 of his points in the second half.

McCollum was coming off an injury that kept him out of the final non-conference tilt at American, a game that Siena won despite missing their star. It took the sophomore point guard over 10 minutes to get his first basket, but he was flexing his muscles the rest of the way. McCollum excelled at creating space by splitting the defense and getting floaters to fall. His most important shot of the night came with 2:33 to play, when he hit a deep 3 pointer to extend the lead from three to six, a dagger that Quinnipiac never recovered from.

On the defensive side of the ball, Siena’s Jared Billups had an excellent weekend. Tasked with guarding preseason All-MAAC first teamer Matt Balanc, Billups rose to the occasion, as the main defender limiting Balanc to just four points and five shots. It characterized the struggle that this season has been for Balanc, who has seen his scoring average and efficiency tank from the past season.

Both teams were effective at scoring in the paint, with 92 combined points in close between them. Siena proved that they can win an interior rock fight on the road against a good team. The Saints also proved that they can win through big performances by their stars on both ends. The closing sequences of this game proved the Saints were the better coached and better prepared team, something that Maciariello has done an excellent job with over his four years on the sideline.

Come Sunday, the game followed a different script. In front of a solid crowd at Fairfield’s brand new arena, the Saints burst out to a double-digit early lead. Siena led 27-9 after 12 minutes, while getting buckets from many different places. Freshman Michael Eley flexed his muscles, with eight points in the first 10 minutes as Siena built their lead. Jackson Stormo got into early foul trouble, but Eduardo Lane stepped in and excelled with a few buckets in the paint.

While Fairfield’s offense languished, Siena’s thrived. The Saints once again looked like they were prepared for exactly what Fairfield was throwing at them, and knew exactly how to respond. While the Stags fiddled around looking for any lineup that would work, it seemed like everybody that came in for the Saints was playing well. Even on a day where McCollum wasn’t a huge factor in the scoring department, the slack was picked up from other places.

Billups was again tasked with guarding a high-level guard, and he thrived with the matchup against Bowling Green transfer Caleb Fields, who has taken the first part of the season by storm with his athleticism and ability to get to the rim.

Siena coach Carm Maciariello even called him “the snakehead” of the Fairfield interior offense, and Billups kept that snake slithering around the outside for most of the game, holding him to just nine points on 2-of-7 shooting. After the game, Billups said that he believes that he’s the best defender in the conference, and one of the best defenders in the country.

(And while I know some folks in New Rochelle reading this may have other opinions, the Saints’ sophomore made his case once again.)

Despite the strong start, the Stags were able to come back into the game, and it was just a nine-point Siena lead at half. Fairfield Jay Young said that he was happy that it was nine-point game at the break, and eventually through some long-awaited shotmaking by TJ Long, the gap was cut to two points in the late going.

With no timeouts remaining however, the Stags weren’t able to talk it over, and hustle plays made the difference. Eley had an offensive rebound and an impressive putback, as well as a steal where he poked the ball out of Fields’ hands on a handoff. Billups intercepted an inbound pass in the backcourt, and Michael Baer had an offensive rebound off a missed free throw with 30 seconds left in the game, which secured the possession that won it for the Saints.

The 70-61 victory pushed the Saints to 3-0 in the MAAC, and capped off their weekend in impressive fashion. McCollum and Platek combined for 11 points, but the role players stepped up, Eley’s 16 points and seven rebounds earned him plaudits from many. His athleticism, shotmaking, and motor has really stood out, and there’s really no reason why Eley, and his “helmet” of hair can’t be a star in the MAAC.

Interior defense has been a concern for the Saints, but they had good shifts out of Lane in the non-Stormo minutes, and were able to fend off the pressure from the Stags and their crowd in the late going.

Non-conference play is one thing, but Maciariello knows about as good as anybody in the league, that every game is a rock fight.

“I believe in these guys, they believe in each other,” he said.

Next weekend, the Saints return home, and they’ll have a big crowd waiting for them at MVP Arena on both Friday and Sunday as they take on Saint Peter’s and Rider. Winning those two games would give the Saints their second 5-0 league start in three years. Maciariello’s crew is the clearcut threat to Rick Pitino’s Iona at the top of the MAAC right now, and they don’t meet until Jan. 27 in Albany. If things keep going the way they have been, the MAAC should do anything they can to get that game on ESPN2 or ESPNU, even if that means moving the game to 9 p.m., like they did last year.