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On Sunday afternoon in Loundonville, N.Y., the Siena College men’s basketball team finally opened their 2020-21 season three days into 2021 and on top of being happy to finally play, were also lucky to win.

On the fourth day of the New Year and the second game of their season, the Saints played like the team that was unanimously chosen by the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference coaches as the preseason favorite to win the conference.

One night after clipping Monmouth by a single point, Siena knocked Monmouth out with a stifling defensive performance and thanks to double-doubles from its top two players in a 76-62 Saints win.

Prior to Sunday’s 78-77 win over Monmouth, Siena had endured three COVID-related program shutdowns that stalled the start to its season by more than a month. Following a hard-fought win by their team on Sunday, junior Jalen Pickett and senior Manny Camper each posted a double-double to spark the Saints in game two of the back-to-back meetings between the teams – Pickett with a game-high 18 points and 14 rebounds and Camper with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

“I’m competitive, so I don’t like when we get whooped like that but you’ve got to take your hat off when you watch people do good things,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “I’ve said before that we needed to see (Siena) play. I wish I wasn’t the first one to have to play them, but we need these two kids (Pickett and Camper) to play as many games as possible because they are picked to be the champs and I think our whole league needs to praise the top players. Those kids are awesome.”

At halftime on Monday, it looked as though Monmouth and Siena would again go down to the wire, with the visiting Hawks bouncing back from an early 11-2 deficit to surge ahead, 35-34, at halftime. A three-point play by Monmouth leading scorer Deion Hammond cut Siena’s lead to 43-42 with 15:35 left in the second half and that was the last field goal Monmouth would convert until the 9:18 mark of the second half – a 6:17 stretch during which Siena outscored the Hawks 15-1 and built its lead to 58-43.

Monmouth's Deion Hammond shoots over Siena's Kyle Young. (Photo: Monmouth Athletics)
Monmouth's Deion Hammond shoots over Siena's Kyle Young. (Photo: Monmouth Athletics)

“They were way more of a team than we are right now,” Rice said. “We have some great individual talent here at Monmouth but right now, our team concept isn’t as good as it needs to be. We got to see a real team up close today and I want to praise those kids.”

The three-point play by Hammond was his last basket of the game and his only score of the second half. He moved into eighth place on the all-time Monmouth scoring list with 1,407 career points, passing former standout and head coach Dave Calloway (1,404) on Monday night. It was the highlight of a two-day stretch Hammond will quickly move on from after shooting 4-for-11 from the free-throw line during Sunday’s 20-point performance and scoring a season-low 12 points on Monday.

Monmouth’s depth was an advantage in the first half, with the second unit helping pull the Hawks back into the lead after slipping into the early nine-point deficit. Senior George Papas then closed the half with a pair of three-pointers that catapulted Monmouth into a one-point lead at halftime. Papas finished with a team-high 14 points.

In the second half, despite Siena’s starters playing more minutes on Sunday than Monmouth’s top players, the Saints were the more active team on both ends of the floor. The hosts won the rebounding battle (45-38), the turnover margin (12-10) and nearly doubled-up Monmouth in free-throw attempts (34-18).

“They keep the ball in Jalen’s hands and you can’t turn him over, you can’t speed him up and we are not good at our traps yet,” Rice said. “It’s not the kids’ fault – we haven’t practiced all that stuff. You’re not getting Jalen with that stuff. It worked against him as a freshman, last year, it didn’t work as much.

“When we got punched in the face today once, we responded. When we got punched a second time, we started pointing fingers at each other, we started talking crazy to each other. Now we’re mad at them (Siena) and there’s no reason to be made at them. They outplayed us and stayed together.”

Red-shirt sophomore Donovann Toatley was third on the team with six points after sitting for the first 29-plus minutes of Monday’s game – which Rice indicated was due to disciplinary measures. Toatley also did not play in an opening-night loss to Hofstra when he and fellow sophomores Gob Gabriel and Jarvis Vaughan violated quarantine rules during the team’s shutdown.

“I was very nice to him that he got in,” Rice said of Toatley. “I was super-duper-duper-duper-duper, super-duper nice that Donovann got in the game today. We are going to work with Donovann for him to be a good Monmouth Man. He will get there.”

Pickett came up three points shy of the 1,000-point plateau Monday but capped off a strong start to his season as the preseason pick for MAAC Player of the Year. The 6-foot-4 junior posted 20 points, six rebounds and six assists in Sunday’s opener and came back with a game-high in points and rebounds while playing the point and matching up with Hammond on many of Siena’s defensive possessions.

“If there was something in his game that I saw that I thought we could go after, now that I’ve gotten in front of him again, I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board,” Rice said of Pickett. “You can not speed that kid up. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s shooting it at a high clip. He only takes good shots and he’s so unselfish that you put those other shooters around him and he finds them.”

The 62 points were a season-low by Monmouth, which entered averaging 83.3 points per game and had not scored fewer than 76 in any of its first six games of the season.

In three conference home-and-home matchups so far this season, Monmouth has split one with St. Peter’s, swept one vs. Canisius and been swept by Siena. The trip to Siena for the long weekend was Monmouth’s first road trip of the season and the Hawks will be back at OceanFirst Bank Arena on Saturday and Sunday for two games against Marist.

“A week ago, it looked like nobody could play with us,” Rice said. “A week goes by, we look like we can’t play with anybody. Some of that is kids carrying a heavy load. Some of that is we got whooped by a better team today. Yesterday, we missed a lot of opportunities and could have got that one. Today, we just got whooped.”


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