By Kevin Sweeney
3 game suspension.
Indefinite leave of absence.
Siena fans won’t remember any of that from super sophomore Nico Clareth’s tumultuous campaign.
They’ll remember the MAAC semifinal in which Clareth dropped 27 points in the second half on a bum ankle to lead a massive comeback to beat top-seeded Monmouth.
They’ll remember chanting his name as he stood at center court overcome with emotion.
They hope they’ll remember an NCAA Tournament berth.
Clareth exploded from downtown with 7 second-half threes as the Saints came from 17 down to advance to the MAAC title game Monday night. Meanwhile, Monmouth’s NCAA Tournament hopes come crashing down in Albany for the second straight season after dominating the regular season.
“This is everything right here. After all this hard work” Clareth said postgame, per @SienaSaints/Twitter. “We got one more….and we’ve got five more after that.”
Siena hung with the Hawks for much of the first half despite Clareth playing just 3 minutes, but a late run by Monmouth appeared to put the Saints’ hopes of advancing in serious jeopardy. With do-everything forward Lavon Long on the bench with 2 fouls, Siena turned the ball over 13 times in the opening period and couldn’t get anything going on offense late. Meanwhile, Monmouth heated up, going on a half-closing 9-0 run to give the Hawks a 39-25 lead at the break.
Coming out of halftime, Monmouth seemed ready to pull away despite being in Siena’s home arena, but a couple of early 3’s by Clareth kept the Saints around.
Then, things changed.
Clareth knocked down shot after shot, Marquis Wright was relentless with his drives to the hoop, and Brett Bisping and Javion Ogunyemi owned the glass. The Saints started to string together stops on defense, and all the sudden were right back in it. The raucous Siena faithful were going crazy, and Monmouth seemed to tense up.
However, Monmouth appeared to be regaining control as senior Josh James finished a 3-point play to put the Hawks up 5. But James was T’d up in the aftermath of the bucket to keep momentum with the Saints. At that point, Monmouth had to be seeing flashbacks of last season’s championship game, when James got a technical late in the Monmouth defeat.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, it was deja vu.
Siena fought back to reclaim the lead and held it for much of the late stages of the second half. Every Monmouth bucket had an answer from Siena, and the intensity in the building grew with each passing second.
The Hawks kept pushing, and got back within 1 with a minute to go. But Clareth hit a ridiculous fade-away from the baseline to keep the Saints in front. A stop by the Saints forced Monmouth to play the foul game, and Siena made their free throws when it mattered to complete the unthinkable comeback.
Wright had 20 points and 8 assists, while Ogunyemi had 21 points and Brett Bisping had 13 points and 8 rebounds.
Justin Robinson led the Hawks with 22 points, but was mostly kept in check all night by senior forward Lavon Long. James had 14 points, while Je’Lon Hornbeak had 13.
Monmouth’s incredible senior class of Robinson (program’s D1 all-time leading scorer), James, Hornbeak, Collin Stewart, and Chris Brady exits without an NCAA Tournament berth, save a miracle from the Selection Committee.
Meanwhile, Siena advances to the MAAC championship game tomorrow at 9pm. It should be an incredible crowd and atmosphere in downtown Albany.