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Saints go marching again in March

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Sure, the green-and-gold faithful had seen them before. They had watched these five Saints, clad in white, march through the MAAC tournament on the Times Union Center court last season. They had seen them play selflessly, spearheaded by the speed of point guard Ronald Moore, the length of Edwin Ubiles and the efficiency of shooting guard Kenny Hasbrouck. Still, each March win is different, and this time the Saints, who reached the NCAA tournament's second round last year, had experience on their side.

"The last three minutes were the longest in my life," said Ryan Rossiter, a sophomore forward who scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in the 77-70 championship win over Niagara (RECAP | BOX). "We knew when we were up 12 with three to go that we would finish it off."

In a year that saw the ascendant mid-major program travel great lengths to conduct mettle tests against the defending champs in Kansas and current title contender in Pittsburgh, the Saints failed to gain a definitive victory in the regular season. Knowing that the most ambitious schedule in school history would backfire if they failed to win their conference tourney, McCaffery's crew earned an NCAA bid the old-fashioned way, beating their peers in what the RPI rates as the nation's No. 13 conference.

"This was the best year ever for our league," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who has been with the Purple Eagles 11 seasons. "Siena's a team that can go to the Sweet 16."

Walking into the Times Union Center on heavy legs after their double overtime win over Rider less than 24 hours before, the Purple Eagles showed the effects of that draining victory from the three-point line. Niagra was 9-for-37 from behind the arc, including 3-for-15 in the second half.

Those shooting issues were frustrated further by Siena's length, and the Purple Eagles' foul troubles. Once point guard Tyrone Lewis and Anthony Nelson went to the bench early with two fouls, the Saints unleashed a three-quarters court press headed by Ubiles, who stands a lanky 6-foot-6.

"At that point we had a butter knife in a sword fight," said Mihalich who watched his team commit 19 turnovers.

It was Hasbrouck's right leg that most concerned the Saints before tip. Playing with a nagging calf injury, the MAAC Player of the Year maneuvered his way past defenders, who still played him to drive. Overcoming a lackluster first half, he finished with a team-high 19 points.

"It wasn't about the scouting report or personnel," Hasbrouck said. "We just worked harder."

At full strength, the Saints' waves of offense crashed down on Niagara after halftime. First it was Moore (seven points, seven assists), pushing the pace. Then it was Hasbrouck finding his stroke. From there, Rossiter finished inside.

After a Siena score forced Mihalich to take a timeout with 2:59 remaining, the Siena fans grew restless. Sensing another NCAA berth, the students started making their way out of the upper sections and onto the floor level. Just like last year, it was Monday of championship week and the Saints were marching. Midnight was approaching. It was time for the MAAC champs to be fitted for their Cinderella slippers.

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