The concourse around the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, Mass. was still rumbling with Iona's unexpected loss to Fairfield in the first MAAC semi-final when Siena's Owen Wignot jumped out of the Siena zone, stole a pass, and soloed for a dunk to begin the second semi. Wignot's play established Siena's plan against Loyola: to play a tight, smart zone, to deflect passes, and to run at carefully selected moments in order both to frustrate Loyola and to save the legs of the weary, undermanned Saints. My fourth-grade son Ian and I counted as many assistant coaches, three, as players sitting on Saint's coach Mitch Buonaguro's bench.
The zone was a sound tactic against Jimmy Patsos's jittery Loyola team, the number 2 seed, who had suddenly with Iona's loss seen a path emerge to the their first NCAA bid in a generation.
Patsos was taking no chances. Even though he had been selected the MAAC's coach of the year - over Steve Masiello, the architect of the garish improvement scheme at Manhattan, over Tim Cluess, the regal manager of Iona's top offense in Division I - Patsos wore his plastic credential around his neck as if he expected a Springfield security guard to deny him access to the building to coach his team.
When his Greyhounds fell behind 16-11 at the under 12:00 timeout, Patos switched his squad into a full-court press. Siena navigated it patiently and carefully. But the effect was clear. The Saints' legs began to fail on defense, and Loyola's wing players Dylan Cormier and Robert Olson drove through the zone. Over the next eight minutes, Loyola outscored the Saints 13-4.
As a youth league coach, I was fixated on Patsos's well-documented antics. Eyes bulging, he yanked his players from the floor after errant passes or missed defensive assignments. He skidded along the sideline like a cartoon character to call a timeout. His substitution pattern seemed to be based on eureka moments. How did Patsos channel this emotion to guide his team?
Watching the other bench, Ian simply wanted to know who was left out. "Siena is only playing six," he said. "Why don't they play their other two guys?"
"Coach's decision," I said.
An Olson alley oop to 6-10 Shane Walker gave Loyola a 28-23 halftime lead.
Buonagura went through the tunnel with his exhausted team for halftime. But if he had stayed on the court to scout the mini-game between two groups from the St. Joseph's CYO of Agawam, he might have found a big whom he could had slid into his rotation.
In the second half, Siena tried to get the ball down in the blocks to O.D. Anosike, an all-MAAC first teamer, and Brandon Walters. Against the long-armed Loyola defenders, this was a chore. Meanwhile, Greyhound shooters Olson, Cormier, and R.J. Williams combined for four three- pointers without a miss.
Siena fans in the arena grew angry and tired. Enough of them left that Ian could dash out of our seats in Section 22 to an adjacent section to claim a t-shirt thrown into the crowd by the Siena cheerleaders (who themselves looked a little arm-weary).
Siena's Wignot continued to find opportunities here and there in transition to keep Siena alive; however, every time the arena's horn blew to signal a substitute it was always Patsos unleashing a fresh hound from his doghouse. There would be no break for Siena.
The game ended with Loyola's Walker standing one step into the frontcourt, his arms wrapped around the basketball. The Siena players walked off the floor before the final ten seconds ticked off the clock as Patsos sought out Buonaguro for a post-game handshake.
The next night, Patsos would lead his team past Fairfield and into the NCAA tournament. I watched this game on television. The last image on ESPN before the network cut briskly away to the next game showed Patsos, still wearing his arena credential, wading into the opposing bench to speak with the Fairifield players. Patsos buttonholed Rakim Sanders, placing one hand on each of the Stag's star's shoulders. He was speaking intently, and whatever he was saying made the Fairfield player smile.
Duke was next.
LOYOLA (MD.) 70, SIENA 60 03/04/2012
SIENA 14-17 (8-10) -- K. Downey 8-15 1-3 17; O. Anosike 5-9 3-4 13; O. Wignot 7-12 1-1 16; R. Poole 0-3 0-0 0; E. Hymes 2-10 1-2 6; B. Walters 4-7 0-0 8. Totals 26-56 6-10 60. LOYOLA (MD.) 23-8 (13-5) -- S. Walker 5-9 0-0 12; R. Olson 5-9 0-0 12; E. Etherly 8-15 4-6 21; D. Cormier 2-5 0-0 5; R. Williams 1-1 4-4 6; J. Drummond 4-11 1-1 10; A. Winbush 2-2 0-0 4; J. Brooks 0-1 0-0 0; J. Latham 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-53 9-11 70.
Three-point goals: SIE 2-9 (K. Downey 0-1; O. Wignot 1-2; E. Hymes 1-5; R. Poole 0-1), LMD 7-13 (S. Walker 2-3; E. Etherly 1-1; R. Olson 2-5; D. Cormier 1-2; J. Drummond 1-2); Rebounds: SIE 20 (B. Walters 6), LMD 29 (S. Walker 6); Assists: SIE 16 (E. Hymes 5), LMD 18 (R. Olson 6); Total Fouls -- SIE 11, LMD 10; Fouled Out: SIE-None; LMD-None.