Sunday, December 5, 2010

Siena Takes Double Dip Vs. Rival UAlbany

After a break of a couple of days there's nothing like returning to basketball to attend a doubleheader of games that attracts a loud, electric crowd of 10,753.

That was the attendance for the UAlbany-Siena men's/women's doubleheader at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y., Saturday night and the atmosphere was as great as you'll find anywhere for meetings of mid-major level teams.

The games didn't disappoint, either. The women's contest ebbed and flowed until the final seconds while the men's contest went into overtime.

And, the Albany Cups, large trophies presented to the winners of the meetings played annually since the 2001-02 seasons, both now reside in Albany.

The Great Danes won both games.

The Albany women's team rallied from a seven-point deficit with just over four minutes remaining with some late-game shot-making to earn a a 63-59 victory over Siena.

The Albany men made some late-regulation free throws to rally from a 3-point deficit to force overtime and, then, outscored the Saints, 16-10, in the extra session to earn an 88-82 victory.

It is believed to be the first time in the history of the series, either since both teams have been Division I or before both programs played at that level, that UAlbany has swept both the men's and women's games in the same season.

And, what does it mean?

It means nothing, since they are non-conference games and neither the Siena or UAlbany teams will likely be in position to attract at-large invitations for a post-season tournament.

And, yet, it means everything since the schools' campuses are a mere six miles apart and the teams' athletes play pick-up ball together for much of the off-season and, quite often, are close friends.

But from such camaraderie comes an intense rivalry. The outcome earns bragging rights for the ensuing year, and you can believe there is much of that done during that time.

Intensity of play? Your blogger will rank it right up with that of any MAAC tournament championship contest.

Think Army-Navy football, Yankee-Red Sox baseball, or Duke-North Carolina basketball, only on a smaller scale.

We'll limit our impressions to the Siena teams, since this is a blog designed to feature conference teams.

Women first, of course ...

The Siena women are 1-4 thus far, but might be one of the best 1-4 teams you'll find anywhere and could easily be 3-2 if it could close out games better.

In addition to losing a late-game 7-point lead Saturday, it also gave away another potential victory in its previous contest, a 57-48 setback to Central Connecticut State. In that game, a late-game technical foul whistled on a Siena player enabled Central Connecticut to take and make two free throws that tied that game and forced overtime.

On Saturday it took three pressurized late-game three-point shots to enable Albany to rally back for its win.

Siena, though, has shown positive signs including a legitimate conference Player of the Year candidate in 6-foot-2 senior center Serena Moore, who had 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots against Albany. She is currently the conference's leading scorer with 18.4 per game, nearly four points better than her closest competitor, and 9.4 rebounds per contest.

If balloting were held now, Moore would almost assuredly be a runaway winner for the conference's top individual award.

On the men's side, the Siena men continue to show that they'll struggle without a significant contribution from 6-4 senior guard Clarence Jackson, who did not provide one against the Danes.

Jackson shot just 4-of-16 from the floor for 12 points against UAlbany.

Meanwhile, his teammate, senior center Ryan Rossiter continued to put up MAAC Player of the Year numbers with 28 points and 13 rebounds.

He is currently the conference's leading scorer (21.3 points) and rebounder (14.3). In fact, his rebound average is the best nationally. To date, it would be hard to envision anyone else even in the conversation for the conference's top individual honor.

The loss dropped Siena to a 2-5 overall record. Three of those losses are at home, on the heels of what was a 38-game home-court winning streak entering this season. That 0-3 home start marks the first time the team has lost its first three home games since moving to the Division I level in 1976.

"Siena is still a really good team, but they're just not as good as they were last year," said UAlbany coach Will Brown afterwards, explaining everything one needs to know about Siena's early season record.

What team would be the same after losing three of its all-time players in Alex Franklin, Edwin Ubiles and Ronald Moore? The personal observation that it was difficult to recruit players who would have primarily sat the bench when those three were around justifiably monopolizing playing time.

The result though, is that Siena is without a so-called signature star player in its current junior and sophomore classes.

For sure Siena is clearly not the same team it was when it was winning the past three MAAC regular-season titles.

Saturday it played most of the way without starting forward Owen Wignot, who departed late in the first half after taking a hard blow to the head and never returned.

In Wignot's absence, freshman Trenity Burdine got his first extended playing time and responded with 14 points in 32 minutes. Another Siena freshman, point guard Rakeem Brookins, continued his forward-moving development and had nine assists against just two turnovers against the Great Danes.

But, young players make mistakes and more than half of Saturday's minutes (122 of 225) went to Siena's freshmen and sophomores.

Saints' head coach Mitch Buonaguro has regularly noted that this year's team is a work in progress, and the progress will likely continue throughout the season.

Much progress needs to be made on the defensive end.

Said Buonaguro Saturday night: "We clearly did not defend. I loved our heart and our ability to come back, but to give up 88 points ... we absolutely couldn't guard them. We wanted to guard their perimeter players, and look what they scored..."

UAlbany's three perimeter players, Tim Ambrose, Logan Aronhalt and Mike Black combined for 67 of the Danes' 88 points.

"Plus, our late-game play is not where it should be, and we spend a lot of time on it," added Buonaguro. "But you have to look at who's out there. We're very young.

"We had a one-point lead in overtime (77-76 with 1:56 remaining) and we foul 18 feet from the basket. We didn't do that the last three years. This is still a team that makes mistakes at the end of games. We work on it, but we've got a lot of young guys. It is what it is."

What it is for both Siena teams is a work in progess. And coaches for both teams stressed the obvious afterwards ... the hope is that the trials and tribulations of non-conference play results in the type progress that pays dividends during conference play.

Which, of course, is the hope and desire of every coach throughout the league.

And, league play is upon us. It looks to be a exciting and highly competitive season of conference play coming up ... definitely something to look forward to watching.

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