What a difference a little more than a month has made for the Siena women’s basketball team.
Back on Dec. 12 the Saints fell behind, 42-7, early in the second half against solid mid-major level Sacred Heart of the Northeast Conference on the way to a 72-33 defeat.
That might have been rock bottom, but it wasn’t necessarily the end of Siena’s early season woes. The Saints lost two more games after that to fall to 1-8 overall.
And, since then, the rise of the team picked to finish eighth in MAAC play in the preseason poll of coaches, has been as dramatic as it has been unexpected.
Entering Sunday’s 2 p.m. game at Canisius the Siena women have won six straight games, including a 5-0 start to conference play that has them tied with perennial powerhouse Marist for first place in the MAAC.
And, an apex of sorts, or at least a noticeable bookend to that 39-point loss at Sacred Heart, was Siena’s 77-37 victory at Niagara on Friday, its most-recent game.
In a 33-day span, then, the Saints lost a game by 39 and, then, won one by 40. Has there ever been such a dramatic in-season swing by a conference team ever?
Most likely not, and the Saints aren’t concerned about that. They’re just concerned, as any team should be, about their next game.
But, by now, Siena has established itself as one of the MAAC’s better teams this season and not only in contention to finish near the top of the conference’s final standings but to produce its first winning record in conference play since 2003-04.
It has been a long dry spell for a program that was once as dominant back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as Marist is now.
From the 1997-98 season through 2003-04 Siena finished atop the MAAC six times in seven seasons compiling a 101-25 record against league opponents.
Even since that stretch ended Siena has never truly struggled. Its worst record over the previous six seasons was 7-11. But annual mediocrity had never been associated with the program prior to the past six seasons.
The stretch of solid-at-best seasons appears over, ready to be replaced the type of strong play and above .500 records followers of the Siena women’s team had once expected annually.
Veteran head coach Gina Castelli points to the first victory in the current six-game winning streak, a 49-47 victory at Fordham, as the true turnaround for her team.
“I think the win against Fordham really was the turning point,” said Castelli. “I think the fact that we won on the road against an Atlantic 10 team gave our team a lot of confidence. We won in a good way. We played hard, we played well together, and I think it really changed the attitudes of a lot of the players.”
Attitudes haven’t been all that has changed for Siena. The Saints had considerable transition since last year which necessitated some players step up to embrace bigger roles this season.
During the early season it was obvious that the team was a work in progress, but the progress came quickly once players got comfortable to new roles.
The most noticeable improvements have come from a pair of juniors, swingperson Maja Gerlyng and guard Christina Centeno.
Gerlying, who rarely played last season due to a variety of leg muscle pulls, is averaging 11.5 points per game and has scored 20 or more points in three of the team’s five MAAC contests.
Centeno, who opened the season as the starting point guard, has flourished since moving back to the two-position. She averages 9.9 points per game, including 11.6 ppg. since her move off the point. moving back to shooting guard.
Centeno’s best work has come from three-point territory where she is 28-of-544 thus far, a league best percentage of .537. That percentage is second-best nationally, trailing only the .545 long-range percentage of Dayton's Kristin Daugherty.
It has helped open things up inside for 6-2 senior center Serena Moore, a first-team preseason all-star selection, who has moved into contention for Player of the Year honors. Moore leads the MAAC in scoring (14.5 ppg.),is second in rebounding (8.4) and third in blocked shots (1.5).
The team’s other two starters are solid senior role players Cathy Cockrum (5.4 points, 4.9 rebounds) and point guard Missy Ramsey (21 assists, 16 turnovers in her last eight games), who has provided steady play at both ends of the court.
The Saints have also gotten strong play from bench players and legitimately use nine or 10 players in every game, which makes its pressure defense more effective.
It has all resulted in the current 5-0 MAAC record, the program’s best start since opening the 2001-02 season at 14-0.
The Saints might not yet be ready to return to those glory days, but the current stretch of strong play is a sizable step in that direction.
“We’ve always taken it day-to-day,” added Castelli. “I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I definitely think our players are learning what it takes to be a No. 1 team. I think they understand that you have to play at a certain level in order to be that top team. Again, we’re going day-to-day; we’ve had some good wins, but there’s a lot of the season left.”