Matchup: #2 Seed Rider (23-9, 13-5) at #1 Siena (21-10, 13-5), 7:00, ESPN2
Rankings: Rider, #130 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 10 in MAAC); Siena, #119
Pomeroy Prediction: Siena, 80-75 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 30%
Result: Siena, 74-53 in 62 Possessions
ALBANY, N.Y.--In his final game at the Times Union Center, Siena's lone senior ensured that his collegiate career would not come to an end on Saturday night, and that the Saints' season would extend to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Playing on his 22nd birthday, guard Tay Fisher came off the bench to score 21 points on 6-of-10 from three-point range and lead No. 1 seed Siena over No. 2 Rider in a 74-53 rout. The win gave the Saints the MAAC tournament championship, and clinched them a berth in the NCAA field of 64.
"My team promised me a birthday gift, and it really couldn't have gotten any better than this," Fisher said. "This was the best birthday I've had."
Fisher entered the game having shot 140 of his 163 seasonal field goal attempts from long range, and he executed his role flawlessly in the biggest game of the season. Fisher hit four three-pointers and scored 15 of his points in the first half to help Siena break open a close game.
With the Saints leading by just 23-22 after Rider forward Jason Thompson hit a three-pointer with 7:22 left in the half, Fisher scored 12 points in less than three minutes. He hit three triples, was fouled on a fourth attempt, and knocked down all three free throws to give the Saints a 37-26 lead with 3:31 left.
The Saints entered the break ahead 41-30, and after the two teams played even through the first 10 minutes of the second period, it was Fisher again who snuffed out any chance of a late Rider rally. After Broncs guard Kamron Warner hit a three that cut it to 54-45 with 10:23 left, the Saints reeled off a 11-0 run, highlighted by Fisher's fifth and sixth three-pointers, to extend the advantage to 20.
The Saints would push their lead to 27 points on forward Alex Franklin's three-point play with a little over three minutes remaining, which began the celebration of the 9,279 fans at Siena's home arena. When the game ended, the Saints' student section, which earlier in the second half had serenaded Fisher with a raucous collective version of "Happy Birthday," rushed onto the court to congratulate the players and watch as they were awarded the championship trophy and then cut down the nets.
Besides the outstanding shooting of Fisher, Siena was propelled to victory by its pressure defense, which swarmed all over Rider in the first half and fatally disrupted a Broncs attack which led the MAAC in offensive efficiency. The Saints ranked ninth in the nation in steal percentage coming into the game, and they stole the ball from Rider eight times in the opening period, which contributed to a fast 37-possession pace and the Broncs scoring just 0.81 points per trip.
"The reason Marist lost [to Rider in the MAAC semifinals] is because they kept sitting back and letting [Rider's] guards do what they wanted to," junior guard Kenny Hasbrouck said. "They're a 40 percent three-point shooting team, 49 percent field goal team, so we couldn't just come out and let them run their sets. [Our pressure] bothered them. They didn't want to play fast, Jason Thompson couldn't get the looks he wanted, and it was all because of our pressure."
Broncs 5'11 point guard Matt Griffin could not get the team into its offense in the face of the Saints' press, which often sent two taller defenders at the ball handler after he got across the timeline, forcing Griffin to call on his teammates to bail him out. The Broncs' other point guard, Justin Robinson, did not fare much better in his first action since going down with a knee injury in Saturday's quarterfinal game, as he committed three first-half turnovers.
After Thompson's three pointer cut the lead to 23-22, Rider turned it over on three straight possessions. The key stop on defense came after Fisher's second three made it 26-22. Hasbrouck, Fisher, and point guard Ronald Moore hounded Griffin and fellow guard Harris Mansell at the top of the key, and eventually caught Mansell in a double team on the sideline. Mansell tried to throw the ball off Fisher out of bounds, but Fisher instead took it away from him and got it ahead to Hasbrouck, who nailed a jumper on the break to make it 28-22.
Two free throws from Robinson cut it down to four, but then Fisher incited an explosion from the crowd with three-pointers on consecutive possessions. The amped-up noise level in the arena, the fast pace of the game, and the widening deficit all seemed to unsettle the Broncs, who came down the floor and took a bad shot, with Thompson firing up an air ball from three-point range. On the next possession Fisher hit his three free-throws to widen the advantage to 11.
Thompson, the MAAC's MVP, came up with another strong effort for Rider, scoring 22 points on 10-of-17 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds. The 6'11 forward even hit two first-half three-pointers, but he got virtually no assistance from his teammates. No other Bronc scored in double figures and the rest of the team besides Thompson shot just 39 eFG% from the floor. For the first time this tournament, Rider badly missed the presence of Jason's brother Ryan Thompson, the team's second-leading offensive performer, who was out with a concussion.
Hasbrouck came up with a big second half on offense for the second straight game, with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. He finished with 17 points, five rebounds, and four assists, and was named the tournament MVP. The All-Tournament team was rounded out by three other Saints--Fisher, forward Alex Franklin, and guard Edwin Ubiles, who had 15 points on 58 eFG% shooting--as well as Thompson.
Siena, which shared the MAAC regular season title with Rider, won the conference tournament for the first time since 2002, when it earned a 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost to No. 1 seed Maryland. This year, the Saints figure to be seeded higher, and, with four capable scorers and a defense so adept at generating steals, could prove to be a very tough matchup in the first round.
"It's going to be a problem for whoever our next team is," Hasbrouck said.
Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.