By Kevin Sweeney
It seemed like destiny.
Nico Clareth, whose heroics in the semifinal vs Monmouth had the raucous Siena faithful chanting his name all night, had a three at the top of the key to send the Saints to the NCAA Tournament.
But that wasn’t how the story ended.
Clareth’s three was off target, and Iona was the team headed to the Big Dance.
The Gaels found a way to survive 87-86 in an OT instant classic and knock off the Saints, who were playing on their home court and were coming off the emotional high of a win over top-seeded Monmouth. Senior big man Jordan Washington had 21 points and 10 rebounds for the Gaels.
Siena came out explosive in the early going, snagging an eight point lead. But Iona responded with a 17-1 run to silence the Times Union Center and give them control. Siena answered with an 11-0 spurt of their own, and were able to carry a 2 point lead into the break. However, the Saints had to have been frustrated with some missed opportunities from the charity stripe, as they shot just 7-15 from the foul line in the opening period.
After a cold 3-11 from 3 in the first half, the Gaels brought a 3-point barrage with them out of halftime. They made 4 of their first 5 triples to start the second half, and quickly began extending a lead. That lead would grow to as much as 9, but that’s when Siena struck back. Senior forward Brett Bisping drained a pair of triples as the Saints stormed back to take the lead.
But Deyshonne Much gave Iona the spark they needed to keep fighting despite losing momentum. He made several key plays, none bigger than a steal and dunk that put Iona up 4 with less than 5 minutes to go in regulation.
Just as Bisping had put the Saints on his back earlier, fellow senior Marquis Wright did it at this juncture for the Saints. He made bucket after bucket down the stretch as part of a 29 point performance to keep the Saints punch-for-punch with the Gaels.
With the Saints down 2 with 13.3 ticks left, Bisping stepped to the line and calmly drained a pair of free throws to tie the game. Rickey McGill’s shot for the win bounced off, and we had ourselves the first OT championship game of Champ Week.
It was a steady diet of Washington in the extra session that kept Iona out front, as the senior dominated in the post to either score or draw a foul. It was Washington’s presence that led to EJ Crawford’s game-winner, as the defense had to stay home on Washington as Crawford drove to the hole, giving the freshman enough separation to score the layup.
The final possession didn’t go well for the Saints, as way too much time came off the clock as they looked for a good shot. They finally got a decent look for Clareth, but the fearless sophomore couldn’t quite recreate the magic of yesterday’s performance. Washington got the rebound and was fouled, where he made both free throws to seal the deal.
Wright drained a 35 footer at the buzzer to close the final margin to 1.
The Gaels put all 5 starters in double figures, with Washington’s 21 leading the way. Much had 18, McGill 14, Crawford 12, and Schadrac Casimir added 10. It’s the second consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament for the Gaels, who likely profile as either a 14 or 15 seed come Selection Sunday.
Siena’s senior class of four 1,000-point scorers sees their careers end in heartbreaking fashion. Bisping had 16 points & 14 rebounds, while Javion Ogunyemi posted 16 points, 10 boards, and 5 blocks. Lavon Long added 9 points and 11 rebounds. The 17-17 Saints will likely be offered a chance to play in the postseason, but with such a senior-laden team, it’s unclear whether or not they would accept that invitation.