After finishing seventh last year, with MAAC Player of the Year Ryan Rossiter on their roster, the Saints weren’t expected to contend for a MAAC Championship. Adversity hit the Saints hard in September and continued throughout the season. The Saints lost players to injury, ineligibility and even homesickness. It could have been simple for this team to give up on the season, but Siena was able to overcome these problems and grab some great wins in the process, cementing their legacy as one of the toughest Saints teams in history.
Head Coach Mitch Buonaguro, in his second season, was handed a difficult task. His top rookie from the 2010-11 season, Rahkeem Brookins, suffered a bulging disc in his L3-L4 and a herniated disc at L4-L5 in his back. The injury ruled him out for the season on November 9th, Brookins took to twitter and said, “I’m out for the season!”
Prior to Brookins being ruled out for the season, Junior Davis Martens was ruled out on September 13th after undergoing hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. Meanwhile, Sophomore Trenity Burdine was running into setbacks and was ruled out of the first month of the season before Siena’s first game against Navy. Burdine would eventually be ruled out for the entire season, after complications from surgery on his right foot. Burdine had the surgery in April 2011 and was ruled out for the year in January.
Injuries appeared to be the only thing that could go wrong until the Saints were dealt a decision on two incoming players. On October 21st, African incomers Lionel Gomis and Imoh Silas were ruled ineligible to play for the 2011-12 season, having to sit out a mandatory year per NCAA rules. Gomis was originally ruled to have just one year of eligibility until Siena won their appealed on that decision. He will now be eligible for three seasons. Both players were prepared to have an impact but were forced to sit the season, thus dwindling Siena’s roster even further.
The Saints began the year with a rotation whose bench was exclusively freshmen: Rob Poole, DaVonte Beard and Marcus Hopper. Siena lost Beard on December 15th, when he decided to transfer due to homesickness. Siena subsequently became one of the thinnest benches in the nation for the entire season– with the bench playing just 16.7% of the minutes. This ranked second lowest in the nation after Youngstown State (15.4%).
“We were really under very difficult circumstances and these guys had to buy in to everything,” Buonaguro said. “We didn’t practice as much. I coached differently, I had to.”
Among Buonaguro’s adjustments included playing a 2-3 zone exclusively throughout the season. The zone reduced their fouling even further than in past seasons– which ranked 5th in the nation. Siena was already a program that boasted a low fouling rate since now Iowa coach Fran McCaffery came in, the Saints held down their fouls, helping to keep a thin lineup on the floor. The zone also emphasized Siena’s biggest strength, the inside presence of senior Brandon Walters at 6’9″ and junior O.D. Anosike at 6’8″. Siena held opponents to 42.7% on two-point field goals, ranking 15th in the nation.
Meanwhile the injuries created opportunities for young players to step up. The injury to Brookins created an opportunity for freshman Evan Hymes to step into the point guard position. Hymes took the chance and ran with it, scoring 415 points on the season – securing second place all-time amongst Siena freshmen for scoring in a season. Without Hymes presence, Buonaguro said that Siena would have struggled to make the MAAC semifinals.
“What he’s done is remarkable,” Buonaguro said of Hymes play. “He’s been way above our expectations this year.”
Evan Hymes made the MAAC All-Rookie team, scoring 13.4 points per game and shooting a team-best 36.1% from three point range. Hymes also had a team-high 115 assists during his rookie campaign. The Siena freshman became the first Saint since teammate Kyle Downey to make the MAAC All-Rookie team (2008-09).
The key entering this season rested on how Siena’s seniors would play. Kyle Downey and Owen Wignot, critical parts of two Siena MAAC Championships had to shoulder the burden as tri-captains to go along with Brandon Walters, who transferred from Seton Hall and saw few minutes behind Rossiter the year before. All three would have to step up in leadership roles to keep the Saints, who became decimated by depth issues early, on track to win double-digit games.
“I think the big thing this year was the senior leadership,” Buonaguro said of his seniors. “If I didn’t have good leadership, it would have been very difficult. We were really under very difficult circumstances and these guys had to buy in to everything.”
Owen Wignot saved his best game of his Siena career when the Saints needed it most, hitting a three pointer with 7.8 seconds remaining in the MAAC Quarterfinal against Manhattan to force overtime. Wignot’s baseline jumper in overtime gave the Saints an 82-80 lead with 2:38 left, a lead Siena would hold on for an 84-82 win. Wignot’s career high 22 points was a finish to a season that began with Wignot injuring himself on a layup 6:19 into Siena’s first game against Navy. Wignot would miss the next five games but came back to start the rest of the season for the Saints.
“Not many people thought we were going to go far, I think as a team we all really pulled together,” Wignot said. “The first two years we were really supposed to win it and this year we kind of played with a chip on our shoulder, we tried to show people that we were contenders too and I think that’s what we really did this year.”
Downey, who averaged 23.6 minutes per game in the previous season, played the sixth highest percentage of minutes in all of Division I. Only five other players in the country played more than Downey’s 1,173 minutes. Downey, who was plagued by injury issues throughout his career, arrived healthy and started every game for the Saints.
The two main accomplishments of this season came down to battling the theme that brought the Saints together all year: battling adversity. The Iona Gaels, a team that crushed the Saints 95-59 in their first meeting at Madison Square Garden, raced out to a 20-2 lead in the game’s first four and a half minutes in the second meeting at the Times Union Center. The Saints closed the half down double digits and could have easily folded to the Gaels in the second half. Instead the Saints came out and made five three pointers to help close the gap. As much as that closed the gap, the Siena defense held down Iona, a team that shot 55.7% from two-point field goals (2nd in the nation), to just 39.1% (9 for 23) and shut them out from three. The senior Downey showed up in a critical way twice late as well. His a three-pointer with 4:22 left gave Siena their first lead and his 17 foot shot gave the Saints a 63-62 lead with 51 seconds left. Not making anything simple, the Saints let the Gaels have four chances to tie or win the game but held them off for a 65-62 win. Downey’s 16 points trailed just O.D. Anosike, who went for a team-high 17 points and 15 rebounds.
The Saints, aided by their Iona win, worked their way to clinching the sixth seed in the MAAC Tournament with help from another senior. Connor Fenlon, a walk-on from Tampa, FL, made Senior Day‘s first basket – a three-pointer – as they went on to score a season-high 86 points in an 86-75 win over Canisius. Downey made Senior Day his by scoring a career-high 28 points and dishing out a team-high 5 assists. Hymes scored 12 points but exited in the second half with a left knee injury, an injury that held him out of practice all week leading up to the tournament.
Hymes injury dealt the Saints even more adversity as they got set to face third-seeded Manhattan, a team they split the season series with. The freshman warmed up with the team prior to the game, heavily taped in gold colored tape on his knee, and did not start the game. Freshman Rob Poole took Hymes place in the starting lineup and Downey ran the point for the first three minutes of the game before Coach Buonaguro decided to put Hymes in the game.
Siena refused to quit and battled the Jaspers, getting a performance where it might have been least expected. While First Team All-MAAC member O.D. Anosike was busy dealing with foul trouble after being assessed a technical foul after being involved in a scuffle with Torgrim Sommerfeldt, senior Brandon Walters picked up his game to turn in his best game as a Saint. Walters scored a career-high 19 points and had 5 crucial blocks. Walters final block of the game came with six seconds left in overtime.
The Saints fell in the MAAC Semifinals to Loyola 70-60, failing to beat the Greyhounds who went on to win the MAAC Championship. Siena coach Buonaguro thought winning in the MAAC quarterfinals over Manhattan, with a thin bench and Hymes playing through pain, was a great accomplishment.
“To go through what we went through basically playing with six guys,” Buonaguro said. “This is a phenomenal accomplishment; to win [against Manhattan] with six guys, against a team that played 12 guys.”
“We had a great year this year,” O.D. Anosike said of the season’s accomplishments. “Not a good year, a great year.”
Siena’s record for the season at 14-17 might appear similar to their prior season’s record of 13-18 under Mitch Buonaguro but the path of how the Saints got to this year’s record ended on a very positive note.
“I think this year we achieved the most that I’ve ever been here,” Downey said of the season. “I think we overachieved beyond anyone’s expectations.”
Despite the losses of seniors Downey, Wignot and Walters, Siena’s future looks bright and the Saints could have depth on their side for the 2012-13 season. Anosike figures to be one of the top players in the MAAC and he said he is excited for what Siena will have for next season.
“I’m just really excited about next year,” Anosike said. “We got some guys who are going to be eligible again, it should be fun. I think Siena basketball really has a bright future.”
“I think Evan [Hymes] and Rahk [Brookins] on the floor at the same time will be really exciting,” Wignot said. “It’ll be really exciting to watch and hopefully they’ll make another run.”
Siena will have some difficult choices to make at the start of the season. They will have to form a lineup, likely behind Hymes and Brookins at the two guard spots – while working in shooter Rob Poole and incoming swingman Richard Audu. The pair of Africans, Lionel Gomis and Imoh Silas, will be eligible to be a presence inside and help take some of the burden off of O.D. Anosike’s shoulders. Anosike will have to battle double, and even triple-teams while he works on making his case for MAAC Player of the Year. Anosike will also be the final piece of a legacy of Siena history, being the last player who was a part of Siena’s last NCAA tournament appearance – falling to Purdue in the first round in Spokane, WA.