It was far from a perfect ending at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament for the men’s basketball team this weekend.
After falling three points shy to Iona in the championship game a season ago, the top-seeded Hawks were not able to get back to that stage as they fell to number four seed Siena, 89-85, in the semifinal on Sunday, Mar. 5 at the Times Union Center in Albany, NY.
“I truly give Siena all the credit,” Head Coach King Rice said. “Their kids kept fighting and fighting and that was an incredible college basketball game. We are really, really crushed about it. But as I told our kids in the locker room, we had a lot of things go our way this season. Tonight, we got caught by a team that outplayed us for 20 minutes. No one has outplayed us for a long time. But today, we got outplayed by Siena, and I give those kids all the credit in the world.”
Leading by 14 points at halftime, things seemed to be going right for Monmouth. But Siena sophomore guard Nico Clareth put on a performance for the ages in his first game coming off an ankle injury. Clareth scored 27 points in only 19 minutes and shot an absurd 7-9 from three-point range. Every point he scored came in the second half.
“I’ve seen a lot of pro and college basketball and a lot of different things, but what Nico did today was unbelievable,” Siena Head Coach Jimmy Patsos said. “In person, seeing Larry Bird and Kirk Gibson’s home run – gutty performances. He couldn’t walk two days ago and to come back with that was unbelievable. Congratulations Nico, but we have to get one more.”
“I got angry at halftime with the score and the way we were playing,” Clareth said. “I can’t let this team lose. I needed to do everything to help this team win.”
Clareth checked in at 17:33 with Siena down 16 and, along with a Marquise Wright layup, made two three-pointers to cut the Monmouth lead to 12 heading into the under-16 media timeout. Down by 14 with 14:28, Clareth made three three-pointers over the next minute and a half to make it a six-point game. Two Javion Ogunyemi layups made the score 55-53 at the under-12 media timeout.
The teams grinded back-and-forth for the remainder of the second half. Siena took their first lead at 7:34 on a layup by Ahsante Shivers. Nobody led by more than four points the rest of the way and the teams exchanged leads seven times, but Siena went up by one on a Brett Bisping free throw at 4:30 and never gave up the lead.
The Saints scored 64 second half points and shot 19-30 (63.3 percent) from the field and 8-12 (66.7 percent) from three in the game’s final 20 minutes.
It was a devastating loss for Monmouth’s seven seniors, who won more games than any other senior class in program history. Their decorated careers are not over yet, but this group wanted to go out with an NCAA Tournament appearance. That will not happen.
“We did a lot, but we wanted it to end with a conference championship and it stings that we didn’t,” Robinson said, fighting back tears. “Although it hurts right now, I’ll be able to look at my guys and say that the person to the left of me and the person to the right of me gave everything they had all season long. We made sacrifices and we stayed together. As long as they know that I love them, I know that they love me, it’s a brotherhood that we will have for a lifetime.”
Monmouth defeated ninth-seeded Niagara in the quarterfinals on Friday, Mar. 3. Redshirt freshman forward Louie Pillari had a career day leading all scorers with 16 points, 14 coming in the first half. The win did not come without a cost, however, as redshirt sophomore guard and All-MAAC First Team member Micah Seaborn had to be carried off the court four minutes into the second half. Rice confirmed to reporters after the game that Seaborn has been playing through a torn meniscus in his left knee that he suffered before their second game against Rider on Feb. 6.
While the odds are against the Hawks, who had a better resume for an at-large bid last season, Patsos believes that Monmouth has done more than enough to make the tournament.
“Monmouth deserves to get in that tournament, I don’t care what anybody says,” Patsos said. “They won 17 in a row, King Rice is a class act and a great guy and Robinson is one of the most exciting players I’ve seen play in this league.”
With the regular season title, Monmouth will now likely be heading back to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) for a second straight year. They will find out their destination on Sunday, Mar. 12 on either the NCAA Selection Show on CBS at 5:30 p.m. or the NIT Selection Show that will follow on one of the ESPN networks yet to be announced.
PHOTO TAKEN by John Sorce