In Siena, Terps face epitome of loose

Free of expectations, 17-18 team having fun

March 14, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

DAYTON, Ohio - Excess baggage is in the past for Siena, which faces Maryland tomorrow at MCI Center in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

The Saints (17-18), the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference representatives who reached their current station by beating Alcorn State in a Tuesday night play-in game, no longer labor under anxiety about roles, trust or expectations.

During a five-game run that salvaged a previously disappointing season, fun has been the thing for the Loudonville, N.Y.-based team representing a Jesuit school of 2,700 students.

In that time, the Saints picked up a conference-tournament title and a bid to the NCAAs, while discovering that they can win without a super effort from top scorer Dwayne Archbold, who was stifled against Alcorn while teammate Proper Karangwa came through with a career-high 31 points.

"The main difference is that we're having fun," senior forward James Clinton said, explaining the turnaround after a 12-18 regular season. This was never a problem in practices, but he says, "at the end of games, we could never pull it together."

Of the team's losses, eight were by five points or fewer. But breakdowns in the final minutes of games no longer happen. In beating the Braves, Siena came back over the last 2:42 as players made big-time plays at both ends of the court.

On offense, Karangwa hit what turned out to be the go-ahead three-pointer and a pair of free throws for the game-winning points.

Defensively, it was Clinton who pinned Tori Harris' potentially game-tying dunk/layup against the glass with 11 seconds left in the game.

"One thing we've tried to strive for is to be a mentally tough team," Siena coach Rob Lanier said after the Alcorn game, joined by Karangwa and Archbold.

"For us to do this in this environment, it's an example of how far we've come. There's no better time to do it and all the credit goes to these guys."

When Lanier became head coach at Siena last April, the remaining players from the brief Louis Orr regime had the routine down pat.

Young coach arrives. Young coach thrives. Young coach leaves.

Lanier, who was an assistant at Texas for two years before becoming one of the nation's youngest head coaches at age 33, knew he could possibly be facing cynicism from a group that had seen Paul Hewitt depart for Georgia Tech two years ago and then Orr for Seton Hall a year later.

"The players have had to make a transition," Lanier said. "I had to try to build a trust with them because they bought into something, embraced it, and then the coach was gone. We had guys wanting to transfer as late as August."

While Archbold returned after making second-team all-MAAC as a junior, there wasn't much else coming back from a team that had posted the school's third-straight 20-win season. That brought the challenge of finding other players who might take on more responsibilities.

The schedule, which included games against Oklahoma State and at Xavier, didn't help instill confidence in the Siena players.

Plus, with a fan base that regularly produces home crowds of 6,000 at Pepsi Arena and a media contingent unusually large among the lower-tiered Division I programs, they found themselves scrutinized with the success of the past three seasons in mind as they got off to a 4-10 start.

In class one day, according to an anecdote reported in the Albany Times-Union, a Siena teacher taking roll called the name of a player and, after he responded, said, "Boy, you guys suck this year."

"This is a program that is used to winning and there's always optimism every year when you start," Lanier said. "It's different to lose when you have expectations than when you have none."

Once Siena had rid itself of all expectations, losing their last three regular-season games, they were free to simply play.

With a nothing-to-lose spirit, they defeated three higher-seeded teams in the MAAC tournament (after beating last-place St. Peter's) to earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

It's the Saints' hope that this trend might continue into this weekend.

Maryland coach Gary Williams, for one, sees potential for this. "There's nobody small; no 5-10 guy running around out there," said Williams, referring to a starting lineup that has no one shorter than 6-6. "And they've gotten better all during the year. ... Maybe they've figured out how to win."

"Everyone expected us not to be here," Archbold said after the victory over Alcorn, referring to the prognosis of an easy Maryland win tomorrow. "So they can assume whatever they want to."

Archbold is the player Siena goes through. Clinton said that when the senior from Brooklyn gets the ball, he may seem like a gunner. He can get hot, like he did in the MAAC tournament, in which he averaged 27.8 points, including a tournament-record 36 points in the semifinals.

Indiscriminate shooting, and his teammates' knowledge of it, also has its benefits.

"The important thing is you know he's going to take the shot," Clinton said. "We have to attack the glass."

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