The story of the 2011-2012 Siena Saints began with the conclusion of last season when the three time defending MAAC champs fell to the Iona Gaels in a 30 point loss in the second round of the conference tournament. It marked the end of the career of the nation’s second leading rebounder and MAAC Player of the Year Ryan Rossiter. Having just concluded his first season as head coach of the Saints with a record of 13-18, college basketball journeyman coach Mitch Buonaguro was looking ahead. He was looking forward to next season and he knew things would be different. He knew there would be change and adjustments in order. Little did he know, or anyone else for that matter, what they would be in for.
The off-season began with the departure of two assistant coaches and the director of basketball operations. Guard Jonathan Breeden announced in early April that he would transfer and graduating guard Kyle Griffin decided to forgo his last year of eligibility and move on. Buonaguro looked to refresh the program with some new energy and by summer he had hired new staff, assistants Tobin Anderson and Ben Davis, and DOBO Tyler Simms. With the help of returning assistant Craig Carter he had also secured an incoming freshmen class of six players. This year’s team would be young, talented and seemed to have some depth. Due to their inexperience the Saints were picked to finish 6th in the preseason poll but the future seemed bright. Then the clouds started rolling in.
In September, it was announced that 6-9 Junior Davis Martens recovery from off season hip surgery would cause him to miss the entire season. But, with incoming Freshman Imoh Silas a highly touted 6-8 shot blocker and rebounder from Lagos, Nigeria, and Lionel Gomis a 6-8 forward from Dakar, Senegal things would be fine. That was until the NCAA ruled that same month that neither player would be eligible to play their first year due to rulings regarding delayed enrollment legislation which had been enacted in August. The Saints marched on, preseason practice began and with All MAAC rookie sophomore speedster Rakeem Brookins running the point the Saints offense would be in good hands. Then came the next strike when it was announced on November, 9th that Brookins had sustained a back injury in practice which would cause him to also miss the season . One couldn’t help but wonder, how much worse could this storm get?
So, the Saints began the season with intended back up Evan Hymes running the point along with fellow freshman Devonte Beard, a highly touted recruit from Akron, Ohio’s St Vincent St Mary’s, high school of Lebron James. However, in mid December, after just 10 games, Beard announced that due to homesickness he would be leaving the program. To compound issues Sophomore Trenity Burdine, a skilled wing player who had shown real flashes his freshman year, never returned to action as expected as a nagging foot injury lingered and he saw no action for the season.
For those of you scoring at home, that left the Saints with 7 scholarship players entering the heart of the schedule. Here is how the roster broke down.
Freshman Evan Hymes a 5-8 barely recruited guard, due to a broken leg in high school, who wasn’t signed until June and was looked at as a “backup” to Rakeem Brookins.
Senior guard Kyle Downey was an injury plagued guard who some described as a “role player”. He had started a total of 14 games in his first three years but would need to be a go-to-guy despite averaging just over 6 points per game his junior year.
Senior forward Owen Wignot was a 6-6 forward who averaged 6.6 points and 3.61 rebounds his junior year. He suffered a head injury 6 minutes into this season and missed the next 5 games, yet another punch to the already battered line up.
Senior center Brandon Walters, a Seton Hall transfer who had played a total of just 62 minutes last season averaging just .06 points and 1 rebound per game.
Junior OD Anosike, a sidekick last year in the paint to Rossiter, was looked at as the team’s best player and was picked as a preseason 3rd team All MAAC selection Last year he had averaged 8.9 points and 6.77 rebounds per game.
On the bench were freshmen Rob Poole, who in effect became the team’s only sub, and fellow freshman Marcus Hopper who the coaching staff deemed as a developing player who was for the most part not ready to play a significant number of minutes. Finally there were two walk-ons, senior Conner Fenlon a 4th year walk-on who had never made a career field goal and 5-6 sophomore Steven Cruz.
All of this added up to a rotation of 6 players. The likelihood of them reaching 6th place in the standings seemed impossible. What transpired over the months following was nothing short of remarkable. Somehow, they weathered the storm.
They began the season with a win over Navy and despite lowered expectations, entered every game with a goal of getting better every day and a will to win. They did so 13 times during the regular season. Those included victories over highly regarded and eventual regular season champs, Iona, as well as other top tier MAAC teams, Manhattan, Fairfield and Rider. They would scratch and claw and fight and eventually match the preseason prediction, made prior to all of the roster losses, of finishing 6th in the MAAC. In addition to Navy they managed non-league wins over Mount Saint Mary’s, Princeton, Florida Atlantic, and cross town rival U Albany, a game in which they came back from a 19 point deficit.
Evan Hymes would go on to be named to the MAAC All Rookie team. He became the team’s second leading scorer, averaging 13.4 points, and would be among the nations leaders in minutes played by freshmen. His season included a 30-point performance vs. Mount Saint Mary’s and he was four times named MAAC Rookie of the Week.
Coach Buonaguro described Kyle Downey as “the Heart and Soul of this team”. He emerged as the team’s third leading scorer, averaging 13.3 points per game and 4.9 rebounds. He was among the nation’s leaders (10th) in minutes played averaging 37.8. He posted a career high of 28 points in a must win regular season finale and posted double figures in 15 of the final 20 regular season games. Not bad for a “role player”.
Brandon Walters started all 31 games and averaged 6.8 points and 6.03 rebounds per game, significant increases over last year’s numbers of .06 and 1.0.
Owen Wignot bounced back after his head injury and while returning to form offensively used his length and athleticism as a defender to create turnovers and block and alter shots, a key component in Buonaguro’s roster preserving and effective zone defense. His 22 point performance was key to their eventual upset over Manhattan in the MAAC tourney.
OD Anosike became one of the conferences elite players and is the likely preseason Player of the Year for next season. He is currently the nation’s leading rebounder, averaging 12.52 per game. He leads the nation in double doubles (22) including a streak of 17 straight, the second longest streak in the country the last 15 seasons. He averaged 15 points per game and was named to the All MAAC first team.
Rob Poole rapidly became a crowd favorite for his hustle, determination, and basketball savvy. He averaged 7 points and 2.32 assists per game. He averaged 27.4 minutes per game 14th nationally amongst reserves.
Siena fans embraced this team. They admired their heart and their hustle. Their belief in themselves spread and made believers out of some of the most skeptical of fans. Senior Night was a celebration in which 7,939 fans showed up to honor the four seniors and this team which had given their all throughout the year. In one of the season’s most memorable moments, senior Conner Fenlon, who had been awarded a scholarship for the final half of the year as a gesture of thanks for his service and dedication to the program, was given the honorary start by Coach B. In story book fashion he hit the game’s first field goal, a perfect 3 pointer that set the Times Union Center on fire and sent the Saints on their way to a victory that would secure the sixth seed. The win avoided the need to play in the dreaded play-in game in the MAAC tournament. However, in one final dose of misfortune, the air was sucked out of the arena when Hymes, hustling back on defense late in the game, crashed into the basket support and suffered a knee injury that required him to be carried off the court.
For a team that had been given every reason to quit, they remained positive. Despite it all, with Hymes unable to start, the Saints pulled an improbable win in the MAAC quarterfinals over 3rd seeded Manhattan. The game would have ended in a loss in regulation if not for a last second Kidani Brutus shot that rolled around the rim three times and was half way down until an unexplained magical force pulled the ball to fall outside the rim. Siena went on to win in overtime after midnight to advance to the final four in the MAAC tournament. A perfect fairy tale would have the Saints go on to win the next two games and ride off into the NCAA tournament. The story ended later that day however. Although they held on to compete for nearly the entire game, this little engine that could ran out of gas and the season came to an end with a semifinal loss to eventual champion Loyola.
After the game, the team gathered one last time in the locker room and all of the emotion of an incredible ride poured out. Coach B spoke about his team. “It was a very emotional time after the game. I love this team and I love what they represent. This is a team that in my eyes had a phenomenal season. I am very proud of what these guys accomplished. To win last night with 6 guys against a team that played 12 guys, we really ought to forget today in my opinion and remember what this team accomplished. To go through what we went through is a story when I think about it that should be put out there nationally.”
Having witnessed all year what this team has done in the face of unfathomable adversity, it is hard to argue Coach B’s sentiments. Although on paper they may look like just another 14-17 team, there is much more to their story. Heart is not a stat. It doesn’t show up in a box score. The sense of team is not always tangible and is not included in the calculation of a team’s RPI. This team had plenty of both. They didn’t win a title, but they won 14 games when many thought a handful would be a lot. They were one of four teams still standing on the eve of the championship game. Most importantly they won the hearts of their fans and supporters and will go down as a team whose story is one to remember.
Tagged with: Ben Davis, brandon walters, Clarence Jackson, Conner Fenlon, Davis Martens, davonte beard, Evan Hymes, Imoh Silas, Kyle Downey, Lionel Gomis, marcus hopper, Mitch Buonaguro, OD Anosike, Owen Wignot, Rakeem Brookins, rob poole, Ryan Rossiter, Steven Cruz, Tobin Anderson, trenity burdine, Tyler Simms