NEW ROCHELLE — No one said this was going to be easy for this young Siena Saints team when the season started.
After graduating four starters, the freshmen and sophomores have been entrusted prominent roles in crunch time, and their inexperience of handling it has showed this season. It does not get any easier after Nico Clareth left the program this week.
It showed Thursday night when the Saints (5-13, 1-4) took a heartbreaking 71-69 loss to the Iona Gaels (10-7, 5-3) at Hynes Center after blowing a 62-52 lead with seven minutes to go in the game.
“It’s a mark of a young team”, said fifth-year Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos. “At the end of the day, you have to execute. We have to convert layups. Just like a football team has to block and tackle, we need to pass and catch the ball.”
With 7:26 to go in regulation, the two-time defending Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions went on a 15-0 run to win the game. It was the Saints’ poor possessions on offense and careless play on defense that put the Gaels in that position.
It started with Roland Griffin (15 points) being fouled by Thomas Huerter Jr. (nine points) that had him be in a position to shoot two free throws, and he made both of them to cut Siena’s deficit to 62-54 game.
Then, Evan Fisher fouled Griffin, putting him back in the free throw line. Griffin’s one of two free throws made it a 62-55 game.
After Griffin’s layup made it a 62-57 game, the Saints appeared lost on offense altogether. They had couple of missed layups by Jordan Horn in two of Siena’s possessions on offense.
“This is all new for Jordan Horn,” Patsos said of his freshman guard who scored 12 points. “It’s a learning process for him.”
Siena knew Iona was coming when Schadrac Casimir (17 points) shot a 3-pointer to cut Siena’s lead to 62-60.
“When I hit the 3, the momentum came to us and our home crowd lit us up,” Casimir said.
Huerter turned the ball over in Siena’s possession, and he compounded his error by fouling T.K. Edogi, who hit both free throws to tie the game at 62. It illustrated what Patsos was saying about his young team learning how to hold their composure in that spot.
After giving Deyshonee Much three opportunities to score, he finally completed his opportunity with his layup to give Iona a 64-62 lead.
Much put the game away for good with a 3-pointer that gave Iona a 67-62 lead.
Siena tried to get back in the game, but it was to no avail after missed layup by Khalil Richard (seven points) and missed 3-pointers by Horn and Richard.
When Iona head coach Tim Cluess was asked about Siena’s inexperience in closing out a game, he offered a different viewpoint.
“We played well defensively on Horn and (Ahsante) Shivers,” he said. “We took them out of their comfort zone. We made sure they did not get the ball.”
Shivers led the Saints with 13 points.
Casimir offered his take on why Siena struggled to score down the stretch despite shooting 53 percent in the game.
“Our defensive pressure got them frustrated. We talked more on defense. We got on each other to play defense,” he said.
Cluess wondered why it took only the final seven minutes to play defense.
“We did not play a lick of defense the entire game,” he said. “We went through the motions. We need to play defense the entire 40 minutes.
While Iona gets ready to play the Rider Broncs on Sunday afternoon, Siena heads to Riverdale on Saturday night to play the Manhattan Jaspers.
“We have to grow up and get better,” Patsos said. “No one feels sorry for us. We have to play better.”
Leslie Monteiro is a freelance writer