Saturday, February 27, 2010

Much Still At Stake on Final Weekend

It seems like weeks ago when Siena clinched the regular-season conference title, but there are still interesting story lines and battles for post-season seeding positions going on over this last weekend of regular-season play.

For instance:

- Siena dismantled Rider, 80-54, before a sell-out crowd at the Broncs' Alumni Gymnasium and a national TV audience (ESPNU) on Friday night.

The Saints had more than a 20-point margin before the first half was over, and a 34-point lead midway through the second half.

And, this was a Rider team that its head coach, Tommy Dempsey, voted to finish first in the conferences preseason voting by coaches? Talk about misplaced confidence.

Dempsey called the meeting a "mental health" game for his team, an opportunity to put in a performance that gave it a confidence boost as the conference tournament approaches. Instead, Dempsey and the Broncs are still wondering what went wrong this season. The answer is ... plenty.

- Fairfield continued its strong season in light of what easily could have been a season-wrecking series of injuries by dominating Iona, 71-54, in a battle for second place (and, possibly, more) in Friday's game at the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.

Senior forward Anthony Johnson had a monster 28-point, 12-rebound performance.

The Stags started its season with two expected starters, forwards Greg Nero and Warren Edney, out for the season with injuries. And, then, they lost another starter and one of its leading scorers, swingman Yorel Hawkins, at midseason with a knee injury.

Despite all of that, the Stags continue to play way above the expectations of most observers.

The implications?

- Siena, at 16-1 in MAAC play, maintained its four-game edge over Fairfield. If the Saints win Sunday when they host Marist, it would at least match the largest margin by a regular-season champion over a second-place conference team in the MAAC's 29-year history.

Only the 1985-86 Fairfield team (coached by current Siena assistant Mitch Buonaguro) has ever won the regular-season title by a four-game margin.

Siena's winning margin would be five games if it wins on Sunday and Fairfield loses Sunday when it hosts Niagara.

- Fairfield's victory on Friday clinches second place in the final MAAC standings. Fairfield's is now 19-9 overall (12-5 in conference play) and its next victory would give the program its first 20-win season since 1995-96.

It also keeps the Stags in contention for an NIT berth (unless, of course, it wins the MAAC tournament and goes to the NCAA's).

Any NIT berth secured by the MAAC this season will likely come down to Fairfield or Iona. The Gaels have 20 victories overall, but will finish behind Fairfield in the regular-season standings.

The battle for an NIT berth will likely be determined by which of those two programs advance further in the MAAC tournament, provided both win their firnal regular-season contests on Sunday.

And, there are still regular-season implications to be contested.

- Iona is at Saint Peter's (2 p.m.) on Sunday with the winner finishing third in the final league standings and the loser dropping to fourth.

It means the winner avoids the "Siena bracket" of the MAAC tournament and would not have to face a potential game with the Saints until the tournament's championship game. The loser of Sunday's game, in theory, would be in position to face Siena in the semifinals.

- Maybe even more important is the Canisius at Rider game at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Those two teams are currently tied for sixth in the conference standings with 8-9 records. The loser will finish seventh and face the play-in round of the MAAC tournament on Friday. The conference's bottom-four finishing teams play games on Friday with the winners advancing to join the top-finishing six teams in Saturday's quarterfinals

- And, there's Sunday's noon contest with Niagara playing at Fairfield.

While the Purple Eagles are locked into fifth place, a loss would drop them to a 9-9 conference record. That would certainly classify 2009-10 as a disappointing season for the team picked to finish second in the preseason.

The winner of that meeting will be riding a nice wave of momentum into the post-season event. And, Fairfield still has plenty on the line in a tangible sense, too, including its NIT hopes and a the rare 20-victory plateau.

- And, let us not forget the continuation of another marvelous season for the Marist women's team that earned an 82-80 overtime victory over second-place Iona on Friday.

The Red Foxes got a last-second game-winner from guard Erica Allenspach that clinched the regular-season championship, their unprecedented seventh straight.

It was also the program's 113th victory over the past four seasons. Its next victory will set a MAAC record for wins over four seasons. Only Marist's 2004-05 through 2007-08 teams also recorded 113 victories.

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