Staff and wire reports
Siena College is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years in large measure because Tay Fisher believes a man should live up to his word.
Fisher matched his career best by hitting six 3-point shots en route to 21 points in a 74-53 win over Rider in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament final that earned the Saints an automatic berth.
It was a familiar sight for Niagara fans, who watched Fisher make every shot he took — four 3s and six free throws — in the Gallagher Center in January as the Saints wrestled control of the MAAC from the defending-champion Purple Eagles.
As the 13th seed in the Midwest region, Siena will face No. 4 seed Vanderbilt in Friday’s opening round. The Saints have been a popular upset pick this week, predicted to win by multiple analysts from ESPN and Sports Illustrated, among others.
Fisher is the lone senior on coach Fran McCaffery’s squad and the only player to have endured Siena’s 6-24 season four years ago. McCaffery replaced Rob Lanier after that 2004-05 campaign and was faced by a mass exodus of the freshmen that came in with Fisher.
Jack McClinton transferred to Miami (Fla.). Albert Fisher (no relation) wound up at Kent State and Kojo Mensah went to Duquesne. Tay Fisher was the only one to stay.
“I understood the other guys leaving and I thought about it,” Fisher said. “But I came to Siena to stay for four years, not one. I wanted to make an impact here for myself and for the program. Once I make a commitment I stick with it.”
To McCaffery, Fisher became an essential building block.
“Tay was the one guy in the whole group who was rock solid from the beginning,” McCaffery said. “He came to me and said, ‘Coach, I believe in you, I’m going to help you. I’ll do everything I can to help this team win.’ ”
The 5-foot-9 Fisher came to Siena after sinking more 3-point shots (334) than any New York high school player. Under McCaffery he started every game his sophomore season, averaging 11 points as Siena went 15-13. But by midseason of his junior year, Fisher had lost his spot to freshman Edwin Ubiles.
“You’re playing for a coach who didn’t recruit you and now you’re coming off the bench — a lot of players couldn’t handle that,” McCaffery said. “But Tay was tremendous. If he doesn’t accept that role, we don’t win 20 games and reach the championship game (of the MAAC tourney).”
Fisher was a situational starter this season but again played the primary role of sixth man. He averaged 7.7 points in 17.6 minutes, hitting 64-of-150 3-pointers as the Saints went 22-10.
But Fisher’s confidence took a blow after he shot 1-for-7 in Siena’s first two MAAC playoff games that were narrow victories.
“We could have lost either of those games,” he said. “I felt I was letting the team down.”
McCaffery pulled Fisher aside after the Saints’ semifinal win over Loyola.
“Tay wasn’t happy with himself but I told him (the championship game) would be his night,” McCaffery said. “When that first (3-pointer) went in I sort of knew where we were headed. I told the team, let’s find Tay and load him up.”
McCaffery made Fisher a co-captain this season, even though he wasn’t a regular starter.
“He’s been one of the finest captains I’ve ever had,” McCaffery said. “To achieve that you not only have to be a good player, you have to really work hard consistently.
“It happens that Tay can lead by example, but he’s also very verbal. He can talk and demand immediate respect. I can’t designate that, that’s something you have to earn.”
Now Fisher can finish his college career on the game’s biggest stage.
“Anybody who experiences a 6-24 season as a freshman, this is hard to imagine,” Fisher said. ”Coach McCaffery has really brought everything together. I feel like one of his recruits now.”