By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – In the Sydney Johnson era, the importance of returning to your roots has been implemented into the program. Thursday night was no different for the Fairfield Stags, who returned to their true home, Alumni Hall, which sits proudly on campus and brings back the feeling of the old days where that was their true and only home.
Last season, the Stags only took the court on campus once, losing to Old Dominion over the holiday break. That was not the only item of old times. Prior to the game, the team honored the late coach George Bisacca, who passed away over the summer. The players, donning the late-1960’s uniform style took the court against Oakland looking to feel the effects of home court advantage.
However, the Golden Grizzlies pinned the Stags down 18 early in the second half and held off a late run to take down the Stags 87-86 in front of almost 1,700 fans.
In the Stag’s first six losses, five of them came by six points or fewer. In the air, it felt like something was going to give.
Jonathan Kasibabu got the scoring started for the Stags with an off-balance three pointer. From there, the lead changed hands seven times through the first eight minutes including six ties.
It looked like it was going to be one of those seesaw games, back and forth.
Fairfield would throw the first divider in the game by using a 12-0 run over a span of two and half minutes to turn a three point deficit into a nine point lead, the largest lead of the game for any team. Oakland then, without batting an eye, immediately responded with a 10-0 run of their own to re-take the lead.
Fairfield would jump back in front momentarily before the Golden Grizzlies would go into the locker room leading 43-42 at halftime.
With Fairfield remaining in it, it was Kasibabu who carried the offensive load throughout the first few minutes of the half before getting into early foul trouble, costing him key minutes.
Although a senior was sidelined, freshman Neftali Alvarez took the metaphorical baton and ran with the opportunity to get his. He would drop jaw after jaw in the stands with his countless spin moves and crossovers on his way to a 14 point first half performance.
For a team that thrives off of ball movement and throwing the extra pass, Oakland had 11 first half turnovers that lead to 13 Fairfield points.
Although they only trailed by one, the Stags sputtered down the stretch of the first half.
Oakland would use that against them.
A layup by Xavier Hill-Mais, a three pointer by Jaevin Cumberland, and a layup by Karmari Newman saw the Oakland lead all of a sudden swell to eight within the span of a minute and a half.
While Jesus Cruz would counter with a layup to get Fairfield on the board, the Golden Grizzlies would not miss a shot for the first four and a half minutes of the second half and throw Fairfield in an 18 point hole. The Stags faced their largest deficit, 62-44 with 15 minutes to play.
“We handled their physicality and it led to wide open shots. We’re a good shooting team and we made them,” Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said.
The Stags were letting things slip away once again.
Before things got worse, they got better for Fairfield. Slowly but surely, they would chip away at the enormous lead. But Oakland would seem to respond to whatever run Fairfield had in them.
Time was running down and Fairfield was unable to get over the hump.
With time running down, the Stags rode the hot play of Alvarez, and his fellow freshman Felix Lemetti to provide stability for the Stags at the guard position. With Alvarez swishing and dishing, Lemetti, who only scored six points for the game, managed to bring Alumni Hall back to it’s feet.
Just like the old days.
With Fairfield trailing by four with a minute and a half remaining, Lemetti would get the ball on the far side of the court, hesitate, and then rise up to knock down a three to cut the deficit to one, the smallest it had been since halftime.
Fairfield would stop the initial shot from Oakland on the other end, but would surrender an offensive rebound, forcing the Stags to foul. The Golden Grizzlies were 21-22 from the free throw line up to that point. Easy points right?
Well, let’s just say sports are unpredictable.
With the crowd still on its feet, freshman Braden Norris stepped to the free throw line to put the lead to three.
He would miss both.
The door was wide open for Fairfield to complete the comeback.
With 16.3 seconds left, who else to go to but the man who had carried the Stags back into it.
“It’s no secret we wanted Neftali (Alvarez) to initiate some stuff,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “We wanted him to initiate and then we had a couple of options.”
Alvarez indeed would take the inbounds pass and hesitate before driving to the right side of the basket. Seeing the defense collapse on him, he kicked it out to Landon Taliaferro on the left corner who then got the ball back to Lemetti.
With time winding down, Lemetti would drive inside the paint, and float the shot with his left hand, which clanged off the rim, giving Fairfield another heartbreaking loss.
“I love the fact that we continue to get ourselves in it,” Johnson said. “The spirit of the locker room is fantastic. You can’t continue to do what we’re doing without some togetherness and heart.”
For Greg Kampe’s team, they bent but did not break.
“We went down, we dug in, and played great defense” Kampe said about his team’s final stand. “It was a heck of a defensive possession for us. We’re not known for great defense.”
Although he missed two crucial free throws down the stretch, Norris finished the game just a point and an assist away from his second career double-double. He was the catalyst behind an Oakland team who assist on 22 of the team’s 28 made field goals.
“They were doubling Xavier (Hill-Mais) and he passed it out real well,” Norris said. “Coach Kampe preaches on moving the ball and finding open shots.”
Fairfield (2-7) digests the heartbreaker and travels to Old Dominion next while Oakland (4-5) continue their eight game road trip as they travel to Northeastern.
PHOTO: Neftali Alvarez/fairfieldathletics.com