ALBANY – The game should have been over. Siena seemed to be rolling into the semifinals and Niagara could have easily coasted into the offseason. Once down by 20 points in the third quarter, no one would have shrugged had the Purple Eagles merely let the deficit play out until the final buzzer.
It's easy to dismiss the Purple Eagles after another loss in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, this one a 71-60 decision to Siena in Times Union Center Saturday afternoon. The season, after all, goes down as another loser ending with a 13-18 overall mark.
But it's never as simple as that.
The Purple Eagles went down swinging, putting on a tenacious full-court press that rattled the Saints.
Niagara went on a 10-0 run over 2:42 to cut that lead in half, 44-34, midway through the third quarter.
The Purple Eagles got as close as six when a three-pointer from Maggie McIntyre with 1:34 left cut Siena's lead to 61-55, but the third-seeded Saints made its free throws to maintain their lead and earn their first trip to the MAAC semifinals since 2015.
"We try to tell them not to focus on the score, just focus on one play at a time and I think that's what we saw more of in the second half to make that run," Niagara coach Jada Pierce said. "Being down by 20 points you can fold, but that's not this group. They always strive to be the best and they were looking like, 'we've got this.' That was the positive talk the whole way through."
"They're too good of a team not to make a run and Jada is too good of a coach not to make adjustments," Siena coach Ali Jaques said. "You knew that was going to come. ... Anything can happen in the tournament and teams are here for a reason so you have to be able to stop their run. Give Niagara a lot of credit."
In some ways, the game was a microcosm of Niagara's season, one that started slow, ended strong, and had a lot more to it than just a glance at the stats would shows.
The Purple Eagles started 1-8 and from the outside it looked dismal on Monteagle Ridge. But outsiders didn't see their process. Didn't see their growth. And then Niagara pulled off some big wins. They beat the Western New York rival and Mid-American Conference power Buffalo, one of only four teams to beat the Bulls this season. They swept Siena in the regular season and split with Marist, the MAAC's No. 2 seed.
"I think that's one thing that we took from the challenges we faced this season, is that we can always keep fighting," Niagara senior forward Kaylee Stroemple said. "I think that's a big thing we pride ourselves on. We don’t give up. No matter the deficit we keep coming at teams. We can still make our runs."
You can insert your jokes about "the process" here, but it's what made all the difference for Niagara this season. It's what kept team from falling apart after that 1-8 start. It's what put them in an excellent position to fight for a spot in the MAAC semifinals despite coming up short of the goal.
"We were getting better with each game. We just weren't seeing the Ws and we kept focusing on our process," Pierce said. "We're a process-oriented team. It isn't just about the result. It's more about our character skills that we show. Are we working hard? Are we bringing it every day? Do we have the right attitude? Even with the start that we had, the reason we didn't fold was because it was about the process.
"This year, I saw a group being coachable – coming in, watching film, doing the extra stuff," Pierce said. "You can get caught up in what your record is and just say, 'I'm not doing this. I'm not getting in for extra film. Coaches don't know what they're talking about.' But they stuck with it. This was a tough pill to swallow. We really thought we could stay alive to at least (Sunday) and see what happens. But we couldn’t be prouder of this group growing up this year and watching it unfold."
Among the things that unfolded for Niagara was the dominance of Victoria Rampado. The redshirt senior who won MAAC Player of the Year became the program's all-time leading scorer. She was held to just four points in the first half on Saturday, but finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds for her 15th double-double of the season.
"It's been a fun ride," Rampado said. "Had some ups and downs but at the end of the day I'm proud of my career, proud of my teammates, and proud to be a Purple Eagle."