ALBANY, NY. — Manhattan did something not too many teams have been able to do this season: make the Times Union Center crowd nervous. The Jaspers led Siena by four at the half of tonight’s MAAC Tournament quarterfinal matchup. But then the Saints did what No. 1 seeds typically do to No. 9 seeds, and doubled up Manhattan in the second half en route to a 78-61 victory.
But can Rider, which beat St. Peter’s earlier today, do what Manhattan failed to do and put together a complete game effort to topple the Saints? Well, if recent history is any indication, Siena should have no problem advancing to its third straight title game. Rider lost its two meetings with the Saints by 26 and 22 points this season.
“Siena’s embarrassed us twice,” Rider head coach Tommy Dempsey said when asked about a potential rematch with Siena. “We’re going to have to call a better game plan this time. Our kids will be up to the challenge. The fact that they slapped us around a little bit should be in the back of our minds as well.”
But Rider found an easy way to get 31 of its points in today’s game. The Broncs attempted 46 free throws (no, that’s not a typo). Thirty-one of those were in the second half when St. Pete’s was trying to extend the game, but 46 free throws is an eye-popping number, no matter how you analyze it. “We’re hard to guard,” Dempsey said. “Overall, we did what we wanted to do — we threw the ball inside, we drove the ball into the paint — and that normally gets you to the free throw line.”
If Rider does have its way with Siena early in the game, don’t expect the Saints to panic. This is a veteran team with a lot of big game experience. As they say, they’re No. 1 for a reason. Senior forward and recently-named MAAC Player of the Year Alex Franklin put it best. “We always keep our composure. That’s the great thing about this team,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of different situations together. We try not to get rattled. If things aren’t going for us early, we know we’re always in the game and good things are going to start coming our way.”
It’s that mindset that allowed Siena to weather Manhattan’s hot start. The Jaspers came out with a ton of energy, claiming a 16-6 lead. There was a palpable nervousness among the Siena fans. But when Manhattan’s shots stopped falling at one point in the second half, Siena was right there, ready to strike. The Saints took the lead 50-49 with 13:29 to play and never trailed again.
“We have a lot of respect for Siena; they’ve been the class of the league,” Dempsey said. “But to have an opportunity to play Siena tomorrow in front of 10,000 people is not something that our kids will run from. That’s what they’re here for.”