Nico Clareth posted 14 points and eight rebounds in first action since mid-January, and was one of five players in double figures as Siena erased 13-point deficit to end six-game Iona win streak. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Eleven days ago, Siena fell victim to Iona on their home floor in Albany, suffering a convincing 77-66 defeat that prompted head coach Jimmy Patsos to cite the lack of emotion in his Saints as they looked lethargic against the reigning Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions.
Nearly two weeks later, Patsos turned to a fresh face; one who had gone on an indefinite leave of absence from the program, to help spearhead the effort in the rematch with the Gaels, and Nico Clareth did not disappoint.
In his first game action since January 12, the sophomore recorded 14 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes as one of five players in double figures, making an impact on a night where Siena (11-14, 8-6 MAAC) came back from a 13-point deficit to end Iona's six-game winning streak, dropping the Gaels by the final of 81-79 at the Hynes Athletics Center.
"He's part of our family," said Patsos when asked why he brought Clareth back after a seven-game hiatus raised questions of whether the reigning MAAC Sixth Man of the Year would suit up again this season. "We don't cast our family members aside, ever. We might be mad at our family members, but we never cast them aside."
"We had a meeting. We were going to meet on Sunday before the Super Bowl, no matter what," the Saints' head coach elaborated. "We met with him, then we watched and we decided. It's pretty funny, the Super Bowl was kind of a telltale sign. I said, 'maybe I have to be more like (Bill) Belichick, but you've got to be more like (Tom) Brady; emotional, but calm, cool and collected.' We've just been working along and he practiced well Monday, and then we decided to bring him."
In a way, Tuesday's performance was strikingly reminiscent to Siena's last trip to New Rochelle last February, when the Saints found themselves down 63-51 with 11:27 remaining in regulation before pulling out an 81-78 victory. On this night, the Gaels (16-9, 9-5 MAAC) fed off Rickey McGill's three-quarter court shot to beat the halftime buzzer, taking a 62-49 lead with 13:18 to play before the visitors, just as they did a year ago, gradually chipped away on a 19-5 run that ultimately saw them wrest a 68-67 cushion into their favor when Lavon Long sank a pair of free throws with 6:51 on the clock.
While Long (14 points, 11 rebounds) was at his usual unsung best, it was Javion Ogunyemi who affected the game in ways that go beyond the stat sheet. The 6-foot-10 senior led the Saints with 17 points, but it was his will to win that made the strongest impression.
"Javion Ogunyemi would not let us lose this game," Patsos proclaimed. "He had great energy the whole 40 minutes. He just had a good attitude and said we were winning."
"A lot of things we did last year, we did this year," said Ogunyemi when equating the significance of both wins, which seemed to come at a similar opportune time in the conference season, as the stretch run begins to heat up. "We realized we just had to put minutes together where we could get stops. You're not going to shut them down the whole game, you've just got to try to win each four minutes and try to get crucial stops in each four."
Following a McGill layup that put Iona back in front by one, the Saints seized the initiative again on back-to-back buckets by Marquis Wright, the latter of which was a step-back jumper from the right elbow to give Siena a 72-69 lead with just over four minutes remaining. McGill, who had yet another well-rounded performance; contributing 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds to the Gaels' common cause, converted a conventional three-point play to knot the score at 72 just over a minute later. But Wright would not be denied, as the senior buried a three-pointer to swing the pendulum back Siena's way with 2:11 left on the clock.
A pair of free throws by Jordan Washington would trim the Gaels' deficit to one, but Siena answered as Ahsante Shivers knocked down a triple in the right corner to go up four with 79 ticks to play. Iona would score the next five points on a McGill jumper and free throws by Deyshonee Much and Jon Severe, but Severe's miss on the second of his two foul shots left the door open for Wright to steal the lead once more with a perfect exchange at the charity stripe five seconds later. The Saints would get one more trip to the line, which Shivers split by making his first attempt and missing his second, which left Iona one last chance to either tie or win with 3.1 seconds left. But McGill's three-pointer bounced off the rim to seal a road win that vaulted Siena into a three-way tie for third place in the MAAC standings with Canisius and Saint Peter's.
For Iona, three other Gaels managed double-figure point totals besides McGill, as Severe chipped in with 17 points while E.J. Crawford and Jordan Washington tallied 12 and 11 markers, respectively. The loss drops Iona three games behind the pace set by Monmouth with six conference contests remaining, while in the other locker room, the rejuvenated Saints took advantage of the opportunity to create a closer second pack as their quest to secure a first-round bye in next month's MAAC Tournament receives a new lease on life.
"One of the players said everybody said we were dead," Patsos straightforwardly revealed. "They just forgot to tell us."