by Dan Gardella
Bridgeport – Two teams with different conference play success so far clashed on Saturday afternoon as the Fairfield Stags welcomed in the Niagara Purple Eagles to Webster Bank Arena.
Fairfield, losers of five straight in conference play and sat at the bottom of the MAAC standings were looking for any form of positive momentum.
Niagara, winners of five straight and sitting in a tie for second in the conference were looking to keep the win streak alive.
From the opening tip, Fairfield controlled the game. The Stags shot 53% from the field in the game and had five players in double figures as they cracked the century mark for the first time this season, taking down the Purple Eagles 104-85 in front of 1,312 fans in attendance.
Fairfield opened the game up hot, scoring 16 points in the first four minutes with five different Stags scoring. The Stags continued to get stops on the defensive end and convert them to open opportunities on offense. Fairfield maintained a double-digit lead for most of the first half and went into the halftime locker room holding a 58-40 lead. The 58 points in the opening half was the most in a half since last season when Sydney Johnson’s crew put up 54 points in a 97-79 win over Manhattan.
Out of the break however, it no longer seemed like a walk in the park for the Stags. Niagara went on a 9-0 run within the first two minutes of the second half to cut the 18-point halftime deficit in half, prompting a Fairfield timeout.
The Stags weathered the storm, responding with four straight points to open the lead back to double-digits at 62-49 with 17 minutes remaining. Niagara again attempted a comeback and got the lead down to 6 on a layup by Greg King to make it 70-64 with 12:30 remaining.
Fairfield again responded. This time, courtesy of back-to-back threes by sophomore Aidas Kavaliauskas to stretch the lead to 76-64. Kavaliauskas’ threes would start a 19-7 run over the next five and a half minutes to give Fairfield an 89-71 lead, shutting the door on another Niagara comeback.
After losing five straight and seeming out of sync, this was a big win in head in Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson’s eyes.
“We needed this badly. There’s no doubt about that.” Said Johnson “Just a good home effort and guys are just playing well and seeing all their effort pay off. I think they needed that.”
Home court has certainly played in Fairfield’s favor as they improve to 5-2 at home, and 5-1 at Webster Bank Arena.
In a game that featured the top three scorers in the MAAC conference, it was Fairfield’s Tyler Nelson who got the last laugh, scoring a game-high 28 points.
“They (Niagara) have two of the best scorers in the MAAC, they both average 20 points a game and they take a lot of shots. We wanted to double them anytime they got a ball screen and wanted to make it tough for them and take the ball out of their hands and make other guys make plays.” said Nelson on the defensive effort on Kahlil Dukes and Mike Scott.
Dukes, who averages 21 points per contest led Niagara with 26 points on the afternoon. Scott, who leads the MAAC in scoring with 21.1 points per game heading into today’s action struggled throughout, making only two of his eleven shots and finishing with 11 points.
While the Purple Eagles scored more points than their season average (83 points), it was defensively where they struggled to play with consistency.
“I think they are very good with ball screens, I thought we did not defend them well early on with that and it kind of got them going early on. said Niagara head coach Chris Casey.
Fairfield (7-11) (2-5 MAAC) starts a key part of their schedule on the right foot. The Stags play four of their next six games on their home court as they look to fight for MAAC Tournament contention. They remain home and welcome Rider University, to Bridgeport on Tuesday evening. Following the Niagara loss, Rider now sits in sole possession of second in the MAAC standings.
For Niagara (12-9) (5-3 MAAC), they look to pick up the pieces and return home to welcome Manhattan for a Wednesday night showdown.