Nico Clareth celebrates after second half eruption, scoring all 27 of his points after halftime as Siena pulled off massive upset with 89-85 victory over Monmouth in MAAC tournament semifinals. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
ALBANY, NY -- If college basketball teaches us one thing every March, it is to expect the unexpected.
Siena served as the latest living proof of the old adage Sunday, using a raucous crowd to their advantage on a home floor disguised as a neutral site, erasing a 17-point deficit in the second half to upset regular season Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season champion Monmouth in the conference tournament semifinals, scoring an 89-85 takedown behind sophomore Nico Clareth's 27-point bonanza after halftime and ending the Hawks' 17-game win streak in the process.
"I saw Larry Bird, and Bird hit his head against the Indiana Pacers," head coach Jimmy Patsos remarked, using the Boston Celtics legend's tour de force in the fifth game of a 1991 NBA Playoff series as an anecdote to describe Clareth's effort. "Then I saw Nico today, and that was unbelievable. He couldn't walk two days ago, and to come back with that, it was like Kirk Gibson's home run (in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series)."
Clareth, who suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week and missed the Saints' quarterfinal victory against Fairfield Saturday night, was officially a game-time decision, and only played three minutes in an opening stanza that saw Monmouth take a 39-25 lead to the locker room. But behind closed doors, the enigmatic Clareth took charge during the intermission.
"At halftime, Nico Clareth said, 'We're not losing,'" Patsos revealed. "He said, 'I'm playing, let's go, end of story.'"
Clareth re-entered the game with 17:33 remaining in regulation and the Saints (17-16) trailing Monmouth 44-28. It took only 18 seconds thereafter for his first of seven three-pointers to splash through the Times Union Center net, with his second one coming about a minute later. Two more triples, with a Brett Bisping three sandwiching them, pulled Siena within single digits for the first time since the final minute of the first half, bringing a largely partisan crowd to life in the process as the first elements of a comeback began to reveal themselves.
"It was just my competitive nature," said Clareth of the chip on his shoulder and his will to lead Siena to victory. "I did get angry at halftime with the way we were playing. I can't let the team lose."
"He yelled at me," Patsos quipped. "He said we weren't going out like this and a few other things, and I agreed with him."
Clareth drained his fifth three-pointer with 12:58 remaining, playing to the crowd on the way back down the floor after the Saints drew within six points, at 55-49, with his sixth deep ball coming four minutes later to pull within one. Both Siena and Monmouth (27-6) traded blows for the next few minutes, even after the last of Clareth's trifectas. The Saints did not take the lead for good until there was 4:30 on the clock, with Brett Bisping's free throws putting the No. 4 seed on top by a 76-75 margin.
Monmouth would draw within one on multiple occasions, but could not get back over the hump against a Saints team that lit up the nets for 64 points in the second half, shooting 63 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes.
"The second half did not go our way. and we are really, really crushed about it," head coach King Rice said. "Tonight, we got caught by a team that outplayed us for 20 minutes."
"We didn't make shots," a crestfallen Justin Robinson; whose 22 points led five Hawks in double figures, tersely stated. "Congratulations to Siena."
Javion Ogunyemi and Marquis Wright added 21 and 20 points, respectively, in Siena's winning effort, which will almost certainly relegate Monmouth to the National Invitation Tournament. Bisping was the fourth Saint to post a double-figure offensive output, contributing 13 points as Siena will now await either Saint Peter's or Iona in Monday night's conference championship game. But the night, and quite possibly the greatest performance on the tournament stage thus far, clearly belonged to the mercurial Clareth.
"This is everything right here," he proclaimed, basking in the glow of his tour de force. "This is the happiest I've ever been, hugging these guys after all this hard work. We've got one more, and then five more after that."