By Dan Gardella
Bridgeport – As the weather begins to warm up, the Fairfield Stags have begun to heat up as well. In one of the biggest games of the MAAC season, the Stags welcomed in-state rival Quinnipiac Saturday afternoon. Quinnipiac, the newest member of the MAAC had not lost inside Webster Bank Arena since joining the conference.
The Stags fell behind by as much as 16 in the second half, but rode their upperclassmen leadership to comeback and send the game into overtime. From there, senior Tyler Nelson and junior Jonathan Kasibabu stole the show and helped the Stags take down the Quinnipiac Bobcats 102-98 in double overtime.
The headline entering the game was surrounded around Nelson, who came into the contest seven points away from becoming Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer. Nelson sat just a basket away from the record with 15:45 to play in the first after a three pointer and a layup. Nelson however, would go scoreless the rest of the half.
Even with Nelson struggling to produce in the first twenty minutes, the Stags managed to hang around for the first twelve minutes of the half, exchanging the lead four times before Quinnipiac went on a 12-5 run to open the lead to 36-26 with five minutes to play in the first. Fairfield would fail to cut the lead any lower than nine and went into the locker room at halftime trailing 45-33.
Out of the locker room, Fairfield would manage to trade baskets with the Bobcats for the first seven minutes of the half before finding themselves down 16 with 13 minutes to play.
Enter Jonathan Kasibabu.
After missing Fairfield’s last game against Marist with an illness, Kasibabu would score 13 of his career-high 22 points in the second half, allowing the Stags to comeback.
“I just had to look around and see how guys were giving effort. I said, ‘Being ill is not an excuse’. Guys are diving on the floor for loose ball, guys are putting their bodies out there, getting charges. As one of the captains, I just had to give everything on the court.” said Kasibabu.
After fighting back from a double-digit deficit, Fairfield was able to finally re-take the lead on a Nelson three with 6:25 left in the half. Quinnipiac would answer again on the following possession with a three-point play by Bobcat Freshman Rich Kelly.
“We came out complacent. Then we really fought and got a lead. Then we got complacent again and they came back.” said Kelly.
Kelly would not be done with the heroics yet.
With the score tied at 77, Kelly sank two free throws to put Quinnipiac ahead by two. On the ensuing possession, Nelson would nail a three pointer from the top of the key to give the Stags a one point lead with 45 seconds to play.
After a stop on defense, Kasibabu stepped to the free throw line and made both to give Fairfield a three-point lead with 21 seconds remaining.
After exchanging free throws on both ends. Quinnipiac had the ball, down three with 14 seconds to play.
Kelly took the ball, drove to the basket, then dribbled back out to the perimeter and sank a fade away three to tie the game at 84 and push the game to an extra session.
In the extra five minutes, Fairfield grabbed the first four points, all courtesy of Ferron Flavors Jr. Down 88-84, it was Kelly again who single-handedly brought Quinnipiac back with a jumper and a three-pointer on back to back possessions to give the Bobcats a one point lead with two minutes to play.
Quinnipiac would hold the lead until Jesus Cruz drove to the basket and made a layup to give Fairfield a 92-91 lead with 22 seconds remaining.
On the next possession, senior Cameron Young would draw the foul on a three pointer, sending him to the free throw line with nine seconds to play with a chance to give Quinnipiac a two-point lead. Young had sunk all five of his previous foul shots.
He missed the first.
He missed the second.
With the crowd, the loudest it was all afternoon, Young made the last shot to knot the game at 92, sending the game to yet another five minutes of action.
In the second overtime, the lead changed hands seven times and did not get larger than four. With the Stags ahead by one, 99-98 with 21 seconds to play, Quinnipiac had the ball with a chance to take the lead again in the extra sessions.
After taking the ball across half court, Kelly had the ball poked loose by Jesus Cruz, who then dove on the floor to try and get the ball. After recovering, Kelly then passed the ball off where it was picked off by Tyler Nelson who turned it into an easy layup to push the lead to three.
“I needed to be stronger with the ball. A little carless towards the end and it cost us.” said Kelly on the costly turnover.
“For him to make a play like that as a freshman says a lot about him. Sacrificing his body to dive for a loose ball, that was the difference in the game.” said Nelson about Cruz’s defensive effort in the final minute.
After missed free throws the next time down the court, Fairfield was fouled again and sank another free throw to ice the game.
Although down big early in the second half, a mature Stags team did not wavier.
“I cannot speak enough to the mental toughness that’s growing and emerging in that locker room. Primarily from guys who have not been through it before.” said Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson.
Fairfield was led by Nelson, who scored 32 points along with becoming Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer. Sitting at 2,032 career points, this game was one for the memory books for him.
“It’s special. I had a lot of family and friends here today so it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.” said Nelson on the historic day.
After falling to Fairfield at Webster Bank Arena for the first time in five games since joining the MAAC, the difference from the first meeting was defense.
“For whatever reason, it was pretty similar. Obviously, we had pretty good success last time. Whenever you hold him under 20 you did a great job. So, we liked the way we did it the first game so we came out with the same game plan.” said Quinnipiac head coach Baker Dunleavy on the defensive strategy on Tyler Nelson.
Quinnipiac was led by Kelly, who poured in a career-high 40 points, 18 more than his previous best. Cameron Young scored 31 points in the losing effort.
Fairfield (12-15) (7-9 MAAC), now winners of two straight and five of their last seven travel to Siena to battle with the Saints.
Quinnipiac (10-18) (7-9 MAAC), return home to welcome in St. Peter’s to Connecticut.
With Fairfield’s win, the Stags now sit in a tie for 5th place in the MAAC with Quinnipiac and Manhattan entering the final week of conference play.