Monday, March 9, 2009

Siena Tops Niagara, Heads to Dance

ALBANY, N.Y. - A group of well over 1,000 students and supporters, most wearing Siena gold, were poised just beyond one baseline with more than two minutes left to play ready to storm the court to celebrate their team's second straight conference tournament championshiop and resultant trip to the NCAA's.

Siena's 77-70 victory over Niagara enabled the throng to head for the court and begin running, hugging, jumping and, in some cases, dancing to celebrate their team's inclusion in the NCAA's "Big Dance."

Siena becomes the first team since the 2003 and '04 Manhattan teams to earn back-to-back berths to the national championship event, and the fifth team in MAAC history to accomplish that.

Iona (2001, '00), La Salle (1990, '89, '88) and Iona (1985, '84) also went in consecutive seasons.

Siena's senior guard Kenny Hasbrouck hardly seemed slowed by a severe right calf contusion suffered when he was kneed there in a mid-court collision in Sunday's semifinal-round contest.

The 6-foot-3 Hasbrouck followed up his regular-season Player of the Year award by claiming the Most Valuable Player trophy for the post-season tournament. He played 37 minutes on Monday night, produced a team-high 19 points and added six assists.

Teammates Alex Franklin and Ryan Rossiter added 16 points apiece, while Rossiter also had 14 rebounds and three blocked shots.

"How does my leg feel? It feels great right now," said Hasbrouck, afterwards.

And, he wasn't alone.

But as Saints' coach Fran McCaffery stood outside the entrance of his team's lockerroom with one of the game's nets draped around his neck, he spoke of the pressures of expectation that came with the return of every starter from a team that also earned an NCAA berth a year ago.

I had to stress all season, and I did, that it was OK for them to enjoy what they were doing," said McCaffery. "There were games that the players felt like this was a job. It was like they were thinking, `Well, there's another one behind us.' It was like that after pretty much every game at home.

"But, we were playing and beating some relaly good team, and our team deserved the right to enjoy the victories."

And, there were plenty, especially at home where the this team became the first one in the program's history to win every game it played at its Albany arena home court since it began playing here in the 1990-91 season.

The Saints went 14-0 in regular-season games at the Times Union Center and, then, added all three MAAC tournament games here.

Its first two wins came in undramatic fashion with beating Canisius by 23 points in its opener and Fairfield by 15 in its semifinal-round contest.

Niagara, though, might have been battle weary after having to go through two overtime sessions in Sunday night's late semifinal-round victory over Rider that didn't end until 21 hours before Monday's championship game tip-off.

"We might have been a little tired," admitted Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "It's not only the physical wear, but it's the emotional aspect, too. And, Sunday's was an emotional game."

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