by Dan Gardella
Bridgeport – For the Fairfield Stags, it was now or never as the season began to wind down. Sydney Johnson’s crew sat at 1-5 in conference play after a mid-January loss to Marist in overtime. But something was different in the Stag locker room afterwards.
“I thought that we did some really good things, there was a lot of belief in that game, we had a shot to win it in regulation. It didn’t come our way. But the next few days in practice, there were eager eyes.” said Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson.
He was right. The switch was flipped on and it has not flipped off. Since the lost to Marist, the Stags won seven of their next eleven games to seat them in the middle of the pack in the MAAC as the conference tournament drew closer and closer.
The Stags welcomed Monmouth to Webster Bank Arena in the season-finale with many seeding implications still in play. Fairfield entered the day with a chance to head to Albany as the five seed, resulting in a first round bye. While a lot needs to happen, one thing was clear: Win today.
Before the game, Fairfield honored their three seniors: Jared Harper, Jerome Segura, and Tyler Nelson. Following the senior-day ceremonies, Nelson, who became Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer was honored for his accomplishments before playing his final game at home.
On the court, the Hawks, who were fighting for playoff positioning themselves were ready for the fight. They opened the scoring on a Zac Tillman dunk, and jumped out to an 8-3 lead four minutes into the game. Fairfield would take the lead three minutes later on a Jerome Segura layup, making it 12-11. Segura would explode out of the gates strong, scoring nine of the team’s first 20 points.
After a Segura floater gave Fairfield a 20-17 lead with nine minutes remaining, the Stags would cease to convert a field goal for the remainder of the half. However, Monmouth would only manage to outscore Fairfield 19-10 in the final nine minutes to lead 36-30 at the half.
Out of the halftime break, Monmouth would continue to have control, leading throughout much of the second half and got the lead to as much as eleven on a pair of Louie Pillari free throws with 5:46 to play. The Stags, who have been in this position many times before this season, did what they’ve always done: Fight.
“The answers are in the huddle. We got to believe until the end. It doesn’t matter If it’s three minutes or it’s ten. We have to get stops, play by play.” said Stags junior Jonathan Kasibabu.
“It helps that we’ve been through it together We’ve been down at various points, whether it’s to start the second half or end the half, and they’ve come back. I think what’s awesome is just that I’ve seen them mature.” said Johnson about his team’s comeback mentality.
Following Pilliari’s free throws, the Stags converted on each of their next four shots to spark a 10-0 run to cut the lead to 59-58 heading into the under four media timeout. From there, Monmouth would whether the storm and cling to a one possession lead.
With 1:19 left, Kasibabu made two free throws to cut the lead to 63-62. Needing a stop, Monmouth’s Melik Martin forced up a contested three from the top of the key. Stags sophomore Aidas Kavaliauskas grabbed the rebound and got foul by Micah Seaborn. Kavaliauskas would make both free throws to give Fairfield their first lead since the 2:41 mark of the first half. Following that, Austin Tilghman would split a pair of free throws to knot the score at 64 all. With under a minute to play, Tyler Nelson would run a pick and roll with Kasibabu to open up an easy layup to give Fairfield a two-point lead with 38 seconds to play.
“With Tyler (Nelson), he knows how to find me along with Aidas (Kavaliauskas).” said Kasibabu on the success of the pick and roll strategy
After another stop and a made free throw, Fairfield was sitting in the driver’s seat. Up three with 15 seconds to play. The Stags elected to foul to prevent a three-point attempt. After Monmouth made both shots, Fairfield ran a rather sneaky play.
Although the Super Bowl was a couple weeks ago, Fairfield freshman Wassef Methnani looked like Nick Foles as he launched a home-run pass to Nelson who beat his defender 75 feet away. Nelson’s defender tripped over him as he was running to retrieve the ball. Rather than laying the ball up immediately, Nelson paused for two seconds before scoring the uncontested basket.
“I saw him (Methnani) throwing the pass. As I was running, the kid tripped over my feet when I was running. So, I caught it and my first instinct was to just wait because I knew we had a couple seconds left on the clock to wait to lay it up so they couldn’t take it out and go down and have more time.” said Nelson on the play sequence.
After the Nelson layup put Fairfield up by three with five seconds left. Monmouth proceeded to inbound the ball to Ray Salnave who hoisted up a last hope that missed long, giving Fairfield another come from behind win, 69-66.
Fairfield (14-15) (9-9 MAAC), who finish the conference season as an even 9-9 await the winner of tomorrow’s Manhattan and Quinnipiac contest to decide who is the five-seed come next week’s tournament. Regardless of where they will be seeded, Fairfield is playing their best basketball at the right time.
“We know we are playing well. It started some weeks before that.” said Johnson.
For Monmouth (11-19) (7-11 MAAC), they let another game slip through their fingertips as they now await to see where they will also be seeded.
“They played better and we played worse and they got the win.” said Monmouth head coach King Rice.