They are young, their roster has been depleted by injuries and several of their healthy players are nursing wounds. But none of those factors prevented the Loyola Greyhounds from completing their best regular season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in four years.
The Greyhounds clinched fourth place in the MAAC last night when sophomore guard Mike Powell scored a game-high 24 points to lead Loyola to a 67-53 victory over Siena before 1,371 at Reitz Arena.
Loyola (11-14, 8-6), which wraps up its regular season tonight against Division III St. Mary's, will face Canisius in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals on Saturday in Albany, N.Y.
The Greyhounds, who have recovered impressively from a 1-7 start, were assured of a first-round meeting with Canisius regardless of last night's outcome. But they simply had to beat Siena (5-21, 1-13), the MAAC's last-place team. The Saints, whose last victory came against Loyola seven weeks ago, dropped their 14th straight.
The Greyhounds were not as impressive as they were determined, especially at the defensive end, where they used their faster feet and quicker hands to register a season-high 17 steals and force 23 turnovers. Their offense sputtered early, when Siena took a 10-point lead late in the first half, only to cave in against the Greyhounds' pressure.
Loyola, relying on its eight-man rotation, closed the first half with a 15-3 run to take a 27-25 lead at the break, and never trailed after that. The Greyhounds forced five Siena turnovers in the early minutes of the second half, which they opened with an 11-2 run to take a 38-27 lead five minutes into the second half.
"We've had a solid second half [of the season]. We're still not quite mature enough to finish games, but we play good defense," Loyola coach Brian Ellerbe said. "In this league, there's nobody who is really above anyone else to the point where they can just run through [the tournament]. The key is health."
The Greyhounds have suffered their share of bruises. Forward Anthony Smith (eight points, 11 rebounds) is nursing a hand injury. Forward Julian Tate (eight rebounds) reinjured his thumb. Freshman Nsilo Abraham (seven points, four rebounds) looked tentative while playing with a broken nose that he protected with a mask.
But the Greyhounds pressed on. They endured long stretches of stagnant offense in a sloppy first half that saw Siena assemble a 12-0 run to put Loyola in a 22-12 hole with 6:17 remaining.
During that run, Loyola missed seven consecutive shots and showed its frustration when freshman center Lamar Butler drew a technical foul by taking a swipe at Siena guard Andy Thies. Siena's Harel Gadot and Micah Ogburn fueled the run by hitting three-point shots.
The Greyhounds, using their quickness advantage, stepped up their defensive pressure and awakened to close the half with a 15-3 spurt, giving them a 27-25 lead at the break. Anthony Smith tipped in his own miss with 3:26 left -- Loyola's first basket in a little over seven minutes -- to cut Siena's lead to 22-16.
Jeff Muszynski hit a three-pointer from the corner to stall Loyola briefly, but the Greyhounds responded by forcing three turnovers and scoring seven unanswered points over the final 2:20.