by Dan Gardella
Bridgeport – The Fairfield University Stags may be in the cellar of the MAAC conference, but they certainly have not played like it over the past two weeks.
They fell to Marist 95–89 in overtime, put up 104 points against Niagara, and lost by a combined 7 points to Rider and Quinnipiac.
They had another test at Webster Bank Arena Monday night, Iona, winners of the MAAC Conference each of the past two seasons. Iona took down Fairfield 84-65 in their first meeting of the season on January 7th, a game in which the Stags hung tough in the first half before struggling in the second half.
This time however, Fairfield used five players in double figures and used a 32-point outburst from Tyler Nelson to take down the Gaels 104-100 in front of 1,179 fans.
Unlike the first meeting, Fairfield seemed to answer every shot Iona was making. The Gaels used their quick-tempo pace in hopes of speeding up the Stags. Fairfield led 12-11 within the first four minutes and saw the lead switch hands six times. Lead changes and ties would be the story as the lead went back-and-forth 14 times along with five ties in the first twenty minutes. The Gaels would head into the locker room up 42-37.
Iona would hold the lead for the first ten minutes of the second half and had their largest lead of the game at 70-61 with 10:24 to play. The Stags used three-point shots from Jesus Cruz, Tyler Nelson, and Aidas Kavaliauskas consecutively to knot the score at 70. Iona would respond with five straight points to open the lead to five with six and half minutes to play.
With junior Jonathan Kasibabu out for most of the second half with a twisted ankle, the “Next Man Up” strategy in coach Sydney Johnson’s eyes came into play as freshman Omar El-Sheikh scored nine of his career-high 15 points in the final six minutes of regulation to keep the Stags alive.
Fairfield came up big when it mattered on the defensive end of the floor as regulation winded down, shutting down Iona on their last two possessions of regulation giving Fairfield a perfect situation: Taking the last shot with the ball in Tyler Nelson’s hands. Fairfield drained the clock all the way down before Nelson hoisted a contested three that clanked off the front rim as time expired to play another five minutes.
In the extra period, it was Nelson and El-Sheikh who carried Fairfield, scoring 13 of the team’s 18 points to give Fairfield a much-needed win against a top team in the MAAC.
While many did not expect this outcome, Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson did.
“I think they have been doing the right things the past five games, we are averaging over 90 points per game, we’re sharing it a bit more, and Aidas (Kavaliauskas) is giving us a nice infusion there.” Said Johnson. “When you’re doing good things and it’s effective, it’s really important that you win and kind of confirm all the good things that they’ve been doing.”
El-Sheikh, a freshman from Egypt has not had many problems adjusting to the U.S game.
“I was a little bit prepared.” Said El-Sheikh about transitioning. “The college level is so different. Coach did a really good job throughout the transition from high school to college.”
Fairfield was once again led by senior guard Tyler Nelson with 32 points, 24 of which coming in the second half and overtime. With the scoring outburst, Nelson passed Fairfield great Derek Needham and sits third all-time in scoring in Stags history at 1,888 points, 28 points behind Joe DeSantis for second all-time.
After losing the last two meetings against the Gaels, it felt good for Nelson and company to take down Iona on their home court.
“I think this is three years straight that we have won at home against Iona. So, it’s a good way to go out.” Said Nelson.
Iona struggled to maintain Fairfield’s potent offense and turned the ball over 15 times, dropping the Gaels to 7-3 in conference play.
“It’s never easy when you don’t take a shot and then have a defense breakdown that follows it and we had way too many of those. Credit to them (Fairfield). They executed well, they moved the ball well, they hit shots. But we could have done a little better job on both ends of the court.” Said Iona head coach Tim Cluess.
Fairfield (8-13) (3-7 MAAC) look to use this win as momentum as they travel to Monmouth for a one game road trip. They take on the Hawks Friday evening.
Iona (13-9) (7-3 MAAC) look to pick up the pieces and head back to New Rochelle as they welcome Quinnipiac on Friday evening.