ALBANY, N.Y. -- It would have been easy for Siena guard Tay Fisher to have left after his freshman year. The coach who recruited him was fired, and a number of his teammates and incoming recruits eventually left the program, too.
Fisher also could have given up two months into his junior season. That's when the team captain had his starting job taken away and saw his minutes cut in half as a vaunted freshman class assumed a more prominent role.
Luckily for the Saints, he did neither, and the team's only senior celebrated his 22nd birthday in style Monday night. He came off the bench to drill six 3s and pour in 21 points to spark Siena to a 74-53 rout of Rider in the MAAC championship game as the top-seeded Saints (22-10) earned their first trip to the NCAA tourney since 2002.
"When I make a commitment to something, I like to stick with it, whether it's good, bad or not," Fisher said, the freshly cut net from the one of the rims hanging loosely around his neck. "My commitment was to stay here for four years. I did think about leaving because my friends left and my coach left, similar to any other player, but I stuck it out. I had faith in [new] coach [Fran McCaffery]. I had faith in the team that he brought in."
The new blood McCaffery has lured to Loudonville, N.Y., is young and athletic, led by junior wing Kenny Hasbrouck, the MAAC tournament MVP, and a core of talented sophomores: Edwin Ubiles, Alex Franklin and Ronald Moore.
It was Moore's emergence last season that helped push Fisher to the bench. After a slow initial adjustment, 5-foot-9 Fisher knocked down 46 percent of his 3-pointers over a 15-game span late in the 2006-07 season and helped get Siena to the MAAC title game, which it lost to Niagara. McCaffery was satisfied with what he saw in Fisher's attitude and performance, and the coach named Fisher captain again for this season even though he would be coming off the bench.
"Watching how he developed that way, I had no hesitation naming him captain," McCaffery said. "I knew how hard he would work in the summer, and I knew what kind of leader he could be. I turned this team over to Kenny and to Tay, and they took it from there. They made my job easier."
[Fisher] came in and changed the complexion of a game that I thought was being evenly played throughout most of the first half. He's a classy young man.
Fisher definitely made McCaffery's life easier against Rider. He entered the game at the 11:24 mark of the first half and, in the next 7 minutes, 53 seconds, he made four 3s, then was fouled on a fifth attempt and made all three free throws. His 15-point blitzkrieg helped turn a one-point deficit into an 11-point Siena lead. And, when the Broncs were still within nine midway through the second half, Fisher helped close the door by nailing two more 3s during a game-deciding 11-0 run.
"He came in and changed the complexion of a game that I thought was being evenly played throughout most of the first half," said Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, who hopes his 23-win club will draw the attention of the NIT. " He's a classy young man. I wish it wasn't against us tonight, but you always feel good for a kid that hangs in there, and when he gets an opportunity in a big spot like he did tonight, he takes advantage of it."
It took awhile, but Fisher ultimately warmed to the idea that he was his the only survivor of his entering class. Even as a captain last season, Fisher said he deferred to some of the more vocal personalities on the team. This season, Fisher felt as though he had more of a voice on this talented-but-young team that bought into his style of leadership.
"I was able to be Tay Fisher," he said. "That's going out there, giving all I got and pulling the team with me. They definitely came with me. They followed me, and I'm just happy that they followed my lead, that we were all on the same page. It was a total team effort."
Fisher also was thrilled that his shining moment came in a nationally televised game, which meant his mother was able to see it. Annette Davis suffered a stroke last year and has some lingering issues with her legs, which makes attending games in person very difficult. Fisher was quick to credit his mother with helping him through all the difficult times earlier in his Siena career. And apropos of how often Fisher speaks to his mom on his cell phone, the littlest Saint had a message for her after the greatest night of his career.
"This last year, she told me, 'That basketball is your girlfriend.' She always told me that," Fisher said. "I can't wait to get on the phone with her because I'm going to tell her that I got married to [the ball] tonight, and we definitely have the ring."
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.