Justin Robinson's 36 points were career-best for junior as Monmouth completed season sweep of Siena. (Photo courtesy of Vincent Simone via Big Apple Buckets)
BY NORMAN ROSE (@ECoastBias)
The best part of low-major basketball is that when the two or three really good teams get together, it's a passionate barnburner. The coaches and players know that those games are one-game tournaments for position in the postseason. Siena was within a game of the league leading Monmouth Hawks, and it was a fiery time in the Capital Region from the get-go. The Siena crowd wanted it so badly.
And so did Monmouth's Justin Robinson, who exploded for a career-high 36 points - 23 in the first half - on the way to a high-energy 93-87 victory in Albany.
How high energy? Monmouth scored 1.23 points per possession, with only seven turnovers (9% of their possessions) and 44% shooting from beyond the arc. The Siena Saints scored 1.13 points/ possession, but the 17 turnovers (22% of possessions) sunk their comeback attempts. Robinson was smoking early, shooting treys from the left side for 11 of the Hawks' first 13 points in the first four minutes to improve Monmouth's record to 18-5 overall, 10-2 in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play. Siena fell to 15-8, 8-4 in the MAAC.
Siena forward Javion Ogunyemi (a career-high 31 points) spoke about the way that Robinson transforms a game with his energy and quickness. "Justin does a great job of pushing the ball," Ogunyemi said. "He makes everybody play at that pace. He's so fast, he's so quick that once there's a loose ball, he gets the ball and likes to run."
"We just can't let Justin Robinson get the first twelve points," Jimmy Patsos exclaimed after the game. "I'm doing a poor job of communicating with my team. My car's in the shop right now because the computer won't communicate with your airlift system, so maybe that was a sign of things to come because I'm not communicating enough with my guards to get them to understand how good he is, that you have to have the foot on the throttle for forty minutes defensively."
"I think our kids got going on offense," King Rice said after the game, "especially Justin early. I think that quited the crowd and let our kids get into the groove some. From there it was a good game."
That groove led the Hawks to spread the scoring, with Je'lon Hornbeak adding nine of his 10 in the first half. Seven other players got into the scoring action as Robinson conducted the offense with quickness and poise, dishing out three assists and drawing attention as the Hawks moved the ball with precision and speed. "I didn't think I had that many points," Robinson said, "until Austin [Tilghman] took me aside and said I had 23 in the first half."
Ogunyemi's 16 points (of his career-high 31) helped keep the Saints within nine at the half. In the beginning of the second half, Siena went to work, enticing the home crowd with a run that brought the Saints within two. Ogunyemi and Bisping went to the paint on nearly every possession against a Monmouth team that seemed to be hard to bang against.
"I think they did some things inside we couldn't deal with," Rice said. There the Saints were, only down two just after Bisping picked up his fourth foul with 13:30 left - striking distance for a resounding win at home, with the crowd at full throat, the Times Union Center rocking. Monmouth's Austin Tilghman, the stocky sophomore, picked up some of the scoring slack at that point, scoring ten of his twelve points in the second half. And the Hawks would not be denied, going on an 8-0 run to stabilize their lead. "Austin was tremendous," Rice said.
Siena's dependence on freshmen didn't help. Nico Clareth (the scoring punch off the bench), Kenny Wormley (the starting point guard until Marquis Wright returns from injury), and Evan Fisher (the backup big man who played when Bisping had foul trouble) had their moments, but each of them made critical turnovers in a game where Siena had to achieve a higher level of mistake-free crispness than they have this season.
"It was a great event. We made some really gutsy plays. We had to get a stop and a bucket," Patsos said. "Instead we missed a layup and they got a bucket." "They have a really good backcourt. Their backcourt beat our backcourt very badly," he added.
Monmouth's combo of Robinson, Tilghman, Hornbeak and Micah Seaborn scored 70 points. Wormley, Clareth, (15 points) Kinnon LaRose and Ryan Oliver scored 25. Patsos was proud of his squad. "But we didn't quit," he said. "That's the best team and we want to beat the best team. We scored 87 points! We didn't give up, we're doing a lot of good things. We did everything we could, we just didn't get enough stops." And looking at the opponent, Patsos showed deep admiration.
"You look at what Monmouth's done, they deserve an at-large bid," Patsos said, talking about the Hawks' realistic but slim at-large chances. "They didn't have one win," Patsos continued, lauding Rice's squad. "They didn't [just] get two lucky wins at a neutral site. They went to Pauley Pavilion and won, they went to Georgetown and won."
"We're getting better too," said Rice. "That's the cool thing. Early in the year, we had some big wins, but we're a better basketball team than we were early. That's all we've been talking about, focus on one game at a time and not let the outside noise make us focus on other things."