By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – While the grind of a college sports season is long and arduous, there are two seasons within the long five month journey. On Thursday, Fairfield began the second and more important season: conference play.
Sometimes however, it can be just as cold and cruel as non-conference play.
It took countless comebacks, several that were from double digit deficits but the Rider Broncs used a lay-in from Tyere Marshall with 5.9 seconds to complete the comeback and defeat Fairfield 83-82.
The Broncos, whose non-conference schedule saw the likes of Wagner, West Virginia, Washington State, and VCU were battle tested early on but never saw the result they were hoping for.
“We talked about the non-conference schedule preparing us for our league play,” Rider head coach Kevin Baggett said.
Fairfield on the other hand, spent the majority of their holiday season on the road to close out non-conference play and returned to Fairfield for their first home game in almost a month.
The Stags opened the game slow and sputtering, only managing to start off shooting 2-7. Something had to change. It seemed like Fairfield was lacking energy and motivation of both ends of the court.
“We’ve got about ten guys we feel really good about,” Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said about his rotation. “One of the things we’re faced with is that nine of the ten either have one year of division one college basketball experience or less.”
The first man off of the bench was Omar El-Sheikh. The sophomore was only appearing in his third game of the season after being held out for the first ten games due to injury. He proceeded to score seven points, grab three rebounds, and dish out an assist over the next seven minutes to help Fairfield run out to 15-6 lead.
The lead would reach double digits with 11:43 to go when Neftali Alvarez knocked down a three pointer to give Fairfield the 20-10 lead.
Rider would have to dig their heels into the ground and figure something out if they wanted to match Fairfield’s intensity.
“We have to do a better job defending,” Baggett said. “We just have to start playing with a little bit of confidence. We have to trust each other. That’s what we talked about at halftime.”
Rider would try and chip away at the Stag’s lead and would get it down two possessions on a few occasions but would never get any closer.
Thanks to Landon Taliaferro, Fairfield would become dangerous from the perimeter and use their success from outside to execute inside.
Behind Taliaferro’s 17 first half points, Fairfield would begin to execute consistently and carried a 49-35 lead into halftime.
“He can do a number of things,” Baggett said about Taliaferro. “He can pick and pop, he can handle the ball a little bit and it doesn’t take him much time to get his shot off.”
Fairfield would answer first in the second half with a Taliaferro three pointer to open the lead to 17, the largest of the game.
Down 17 without star guard Dimencio Vaughn, things became tough for Baggett and company.
But when one man goes down, another one arises.
Redshirt Junior Kimar Williams would begin to assert himself in the comeback. With the lead at 15 with nineteen minutes to play, Williams would miss a jump shot, get his own rebound, score, get a steal, and score again in the span of a minute to cut the lead to 11 in the blink of an eye. He would later add another basket inside to bring the Fairfield lead to ten.
“It’s just me playing basketball, my teammates giving me confidence and my coaches giving me confidence.” Williams said.
Rider seemed to have the momentum as they would turn Fairfield over and bring the once insurmountable lead down to just three with 12:16 to play.
However, Fairfield, who had lost game after game by close margins would try and ensure that Rider would not do the same. The Stags immediately responded with a 7-0 run to bring the lead back to ten with eight minutes to go.
Fairfield would eventually bring the lead back to thirteen. While it was not unfamiliar territory for the Broncos, the time remaining was cut drastically.
It would once again be Williams leading the attack, but this time, in ways that would not show up on the stat sheet.
Working with fellow guard Stevie Jordan, the guards would find big men Tyere Marshall and Frederick Scott in different positions on the floor to set them up for open shots. In the span of five minutes the thirteen point lead was shrunk to one with three minutes to play.
From there, it would be a series of empty trips down the floor for both teams, still giving Fairfield the slim edge.
After the Stags managed to get a defensive stop, they would look to extend the lead to three and force Rider to make a three, something they only did twice throughout the game.
Fairfield got the ball to Jonathan Kasibabu in the paint where he was swarmed by defenders. Kasibabu, surrounded by the pressure would force him to put up a shot that would be deflected by Marshall and allow the Broncos to complete the comeback.
“I didn’t want to call a timeout,” Baggett said. “I didn’t want them to set up in something different. We ran a weave action into a quick ball screen with Tyere (Marshall). Stevie (Jordan) did a good job of finding him down low for a layup.”
After the go-ahead field goal, Fairfield would try and draw up one final play. Instead, they would turn the ball over for the 20th time of the game, sealing their fate.
“Down the stretch, it’s fair to say we did a poor job of executing,” Johnson said. “We did not get the looks that we wanted. It’s just painful growth.”
Rider (6-7, 1-0 MAAC) had five players in double figures, highlighted by Stevie Jordan, who had 19. Kimar Williams had 16 and Tyere Marshall had 12.
Fairfield (3-10, 0-1 MAAC) was led by the hot shooting of Landon Taliaferro, who had a career-high 29 points on a career-high 8-14 shooting from three-point land.