For a few days at least, Steve Downey is free to be the big man on Siena's little campus.
At 6-foot-11 he's always looked the part. But for four years, Siena's center has never quite measured up to the expectations that others had for him.On Tuesday night that was forgotten, as Downey muscled in the two key baskets and Siena won a berth in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament by holding off South Carolina 63-58.
Siena advances to meet Massachusetts, a 78-74 winner over Fordham in another second-round NIT game Tuesday. Siena and UMass will play Thursday night at Albany's Knickerbocker Arena, the third straight NIT game that Siena (25-9) will play at the arena located about five miles from the small Franciscan college's campus in Loudonville, N.Y.
The love-hate relationship between Downey and Siena fans reached its low point last week in Siena's first-round NIT win over Fairleigh Dickinson. When Siena coach Mike Deane sent Downey into the lineup late in a tie game, the team's fans rained boos down on their big man's crew-cutted head.
But Tuesday, Downey was cheered during pregame introductions and he responded by playing with aggressiveness and enthusiasm.
"I know inside that he was very appreciative of the fan response and I know he was hurt by the fan response last game," said Deane of Downey, who stopped talking to reporters months ago.
Siena forward Bruce Schroeder added, "It's about time. It goes to show you what a little support can do. He made some tough hoops when we needed them."
Downey singlehandedly disposed of South Carolina's chief scoring threat, 6-11 center Jeff Roulston. Leading 49-48, Downey got a pass in the low post and laid the ball in while Roulston committed his fourth personal foul.