Friday, March 21, 2008
13-seed Saints march all over the Dores
By Mark Schlabach ESPN.com
TAMPA, Fla. -- After watching No. 12 seed Western Kentucky and No. 13 seed San Diego upset higher-seeded opponents in the NCAA tournament Friday, Siena guard Tay Fisher felt confident about the Saints' chances against Vanderbilt at St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night.
Actually, Fisher just wondered how badly the Saints would beat the Commodores.
"This is Division I basketball," Fisher said. "It doesn't matter where you're from. Everybody is good. We saw George Mason do it a couple of years ago. Why can't we do it?"
No. 13 seed Siena looked the part Friday, crushing No. 4 seed Vanderbilt 83-62 in a game the Saints led from start to finish. It was Siena's first win in an NCAA first-round game since upsetting No. 3 seed Stanford 80-78 in 1989.
"This is the NCAA tournament," Fisher said. "You're never going to go out and win games because of the name on your jersey. You guys might think it's an upset, but I don't. It wasn't a close game. We didn't want it to be a close game. We wanted to go out and put Siena on the map."
The Saints did more than that, embarrassing the SEC's second-best team from wire to wire. The Saints shot 56.5 percent, including 9-for-20 on 3-pointers, and repeatedly beat the Commodores off the dribble. Siena held SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster to only 13 points on 6-for-14 shooting and forced Vanderbilt into 16 turnovers.
Clearly, the Saints were the best team on the floor.
"I'm never going to say a team is better than us," Fisher said. "They have to prove it to us, or at least they have to prove it to me."
The Saints still had much to prove going into the final month of the regular season. They opened the 2007-08 season by losing at James Madison, 100-88. They rebounded to beat Stanford, but losses to Cornell and Saint Joseph's soon followed. In Siena's first game after the calendar turned to 2008, the Saints lost by 44 points at then-No. 3 Memphis.
"It's been a long journey to get here," Siena coach Fran McCaffery said.
Siena's long journey began three years ago, when McCaffery was hired from UNC Greensboro to replace fired Rob Lanier after the 2004-05 season. The small Franciscan college in Loudonville, N.Y., near Albany, had modest basketball success in the past.
Siena was never intimidated by Vanderbilt's SEC pedigree.
McCaffery inherited a big mess. The Saints lost a school-record 24 games in Lanier's final season. After Lanier was fired, several of Siena's most talented players left. Guard Jack McClinton, who started 23 games as a Siena freshman, transferred to Miami. McClinton was among the ACC's top five scorers this season, and he scored a career-high 38 points Friday in the Hurricanes' 78-64 win over Saint Mary's in the NCAA tournament.
Also leaving Siena after McCaffery was hired: Kent guard Al Fisher, who was the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year this season, and Duquesne guard Kojo Mensah, the Dukes' second-leading scorer in 2007-08.
"I don't know if anybody realizes what it was like those first few months on the job," McCaffery said. "It seemed liked everything was going wrong."
The only thing that seemingly didn't go wrong occurred when McCaffery persuaded Fisher to stick with Siena.
"Tay was a rock," McCaffery said. "Everybody was wavering, and a bunch of people left. The players that had signed, they bolted. He was the one guy that stuck it out in that class."
Fisher, who was the team's emotional leader as the Saints improved from 6-24 to 15-13 in McCaffery's first season in 2005-06, said he nearly left the program, too.
"I definitely thought about it," Fisher said. "When all your friends leave and you've got another coach coming in that you know nothing about, you definitely think about it. But he promised me we were going to get better. All the coaches say that, but you've got to find someone you can trust. I trusted Coach McCaffery."
So did guard Kenny Hasbrouck, who became McCaffery's most important recruit in his first season at Siena. The first player signed by McCaffery and his staff, Hasbrouck was the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year in his first season, an All-MAAC second-team choice in his second and the MAAC tournament MVP this season.
Hasbrouck, a junior from Capitol Heights, Md., scored 30 points against the Commodores on 9-for-14 shooting. He also helped slow down Foster for much of the game.
"Kenny was the best player on the floor," McCaffery said. "It was not even close."
As well as the Saints played against Vanderbilt, Fisher expects them to play even better Sunday against No. 12 seed Villanova, who turned in an upset of its own with a 75-69 win over Clemson.
"It doesn't really matter who we're playing against, we're going to compete," Fisher said. "We can hang with any team in the country."
Siena, the school with the second-smallest enrollment (2,900 students, above only Davidson) in the NCAA tournament, has been to the bottom of college basketball's ladder. Now the Saints are finally getting a peek near the top.
"I think they really feel like we belong here," McCaffery said. "They don't pay attention to seeds. They respect everyone, but they fear no one."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.