Siena earns NCAA berth by downing Fairfield
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - The wait is finally over for Siena coach Gina Castelli.
After five 20-win seasons and four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season titles, Castelli finally has that elusive NCAA tournament bid. And she got it thanks in large part to a freshman center from Latvia.
Liene Jansone tied her career high with 28 points and had 10 rebounds to lead the Saints past Fairfield 70-68 Sunday night in the MAAC championship game.
"It's the best feeling," said Castelli, 37, a Buffalo native and Canisius graduate. "I waited so long, but it was worth the wait. To play it here, to have your family [here], it's a great feeling. We came close in Buffalo last time, I still have memories. We lost, but I knew we could get back in the championship game and win it."
The victory for the top-seeded Saints (24-5) was their 15th in a row and sent them into the customary wild celebration at center court afterward.
"I did it for my team," said Jansone, who was so dominating that she outscored Fairfield 15-14 in the first 11:09 of the second half. "The guards passed me the ball, and there was just one thing, go strong to the basket and score."
Gunta Basko finished with 17 points and Sacha Baker had 10 for the Saints. Schrene Isidora led the Stags with 18 points and reserve Allison Thorne had 12 and 10 rebounds.
The No. 2 Stags (25-5) had a nine-game winning streak stopped but still have a chance at an at-large berth.
"You work real hard to get to the finals, but this group has been a real special group," Fairfield coach Dianne Nolan said. "They've given everything in their four years, and you would just hope this is not the end of our playing."
If it was the end of her college playing days, Fairfield's Gail Strumpf went out in style. She had 16 points and nine rebounds to boost her career totals to 1,858 and 1,099.
After the game, Strumpf buried her head in a towel and cried for several minutes, her body shaking with sadness. At the postgame press conference, she declined to comment as she struggled to regain her composure.
Something had to give in this game. Siena's last loss was a 77-67 setback at Fairfield in mid-January. And the Stags' last defeat was a 64-58 loss at Siena in early February.
Thanks to Jansone, it was the Stags who did. She scored seven points during an 11-2 Siena run to start the second half that brought the Saints back from a 38-31 halftime deficit.
Jansone's three-point play tied the game at 38-38 with 17:55 left. The Stags tied it at 40 on a layup by Thorne and went ahead 47-46 on a bank shot by Ayanna Brown with 13:14 left. Two free throws and a layup by Jansone, who was named tournament MVP, put Siena back ahead and the Saints never trailed again.
A baseline jumper by Baker and two free throws by Jansone gave Siena a 57-52 lead with 8:51 left. But a running jumper by Holli Tapley moved Fairfield within 67-66 with 2:04 left.
Trailing 69-68 and with the ball, the Stags were thwarted again by Jansone, who stole Tapley's pass attempt to Strumpf in the lane with 5.2 seconds left. After Jansone hit one of two free throws, Isidora made one last bid for a victory, but her 3-point attempt at the buzzer hit the rim and bounced away.
"It's what a championship game should be," Nolan said. "I couldn't prouder of the way our kids played. It was a game of awesome runs. Siena's a terrific team. They stepped up when they needed to, and it went right down to the last shot."