By Dan Gardella
Bridgeport, CT – When Fairfield put their 2018-19 schedule together, they knew what they were getting themselves into. After opening the season against three straight opponents who appeared in the NCAA Tournament last season, the Stags welcomed NEC regular season champion Wagner to Webster Bank Arena Saturday afternoon.
The Seahawks bullied Fairfield on the glass and used a five minute drought by the Stags midway through the second half to pull away and eventually hang on to the win, 79-73.
After starting their previous game on the wrong foot, Sydney Johnson’s squad scored the first seven points of the game, coming from Landon Taliaferro and Jonathan Kasibabu. Wagner would respond the exact same way, putting the following seven points on the board to knot things at 7, seven minutes into the game.
From there, the lead would change four separate times along with three ties to send a closely played, competitive game to the halftime break with Fairfield holding a 36-34 lead. Although the lead switched hands numerous times, the Stags were in control for a majority of the half in large part due to the 24 combined points from Neftali Alvarez and Taliaferro.
Taliaferro would open the scoring in the second frame with one of his six three pointers on the afternoon to extend the lead to five.
However, Wagner came out hot, making six of their first eight shots and nine of their first 13 to begin the half. Fairfield would have to outscore the Seahawks if they wanted to remain in front.
After never being able to grab the lead back from Fairfield, Wagner would do just that with 15 minutes remaining as Elijah Davis would knock down a jumper to give the Seahawks the 45-43 lead.
After Kasibabu converted on a layup to tie the score at 45, Wagner would use an 11-2 run over the next four minutes to bring their lead to nine, the largest of the game for the Seahawks, forcing Johnson to call a timeout. Out of the timeout, Kasibabu would get fouled and make a pair of free throws to cut the lead to seven.
However, the young Stags would not be able to get out of their own way over the next five minutes.
Missed shots and turnovers would plague Fairfield and allow Wagner to capitalize, going on a 7-0 run to push their lead to 14, the largest of the game for either side.
“I’d like to say it was our defense,” Wagner head coach Bashir Mason on the difference maker. “I thought for a good eight minutes in the second half, I thought we really put the clamps down and was able to grab a hold of the game. From there, it was just ‘hold on.’”.
Holding on is what they did. Similar to what they did Tuesday night against LIU Brooklyn, Fairfield fell behind but never wavered. Behind Taliaferro, Fairfield would cut the lead from 14 to six in a matter of a minute and a half to find themselves trailing by two possessions, 63-57 with 3:30 to play.
As much as Fairfield fouled and hoped for misses at the charity stripe, Wagner would not miss, putting the game out of reach and stopping the Stags’ comeback attempt dead in its tracks. Wagner would lock down on defense to finish out the win, their second of the season.
“Great win for my young group,” Mason said. “We preach defending, rebounding, and playing with toughness. We were in this situation before against UMass Lowell where we went up double figures and we let it slip away. My guys grew up and got a good win against a good team.”
Along with their defense, Wagner (2-2) outrebounded the Stags 47-26. AJ Sumbry played a role in the large advantage by grabbing 14 boards for himself.
“Coach challenged me at the beginning of the game by saying ‘who’s going to be the best big that’s going to be the gamechanger?’ so I took that personally,” Sumbry said. “That’s already one of our staples. They told us before the game that they had lost their first two games on the glass. So they challenged us to punish them on the glass.”
While Fairfield’s downfall in their loss to LIU Brooklyn was a slow start, their downfall against the Seahawks was a poor finish.
“Their energy punched us and we never punched back,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “We had a great start and then we had a poor start to the second half. That’s the growth. We are working on it.”
Fairfield (1-3) now heads out West to participate in the Elgin Baylor Classic, facing off against Longwood, Seattle, and Denver.