By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – Sometimes, all that is needed is a fresh start, or a simple push of the reset button.
After back to back losses in which they led by double figures, Fairfield returned home to try to right the ship and grab their first conference win of the season.
It took a spark from the bench, a strong senior leader, and plenty of defense to help the Stags knock off Niagara 77-59 to pick up their first win of the young conference season.
Similar to their first two conference matchups against Rider and Iona, the Stags sputtered on the offensive end early on Monday night, but used lockdown defense to keep things close. After getting behind the Purple Eagles 5-2, Sydney Johnson’s group went on an 8-2 run to put themselves in front. Senior Jonathan Kasibabu was the catalyst in the run with 6 points and 7 rebounds in the early going.
Every conference game for the young Stags so far was an opportunity for a player to light a fire under the team. Against Rider, Omar El-Sheikh score seven points in seven minutes. In New Rochelle against the Gaels, Felix Lemetti connected on six three pointers.
This time, it was Wassef Methnani.
The sophomore from Tunisia provided a spark not only on the offensive side of the ball, but also on the defensive side.
In the span of four minutes, Methnani drew two offensive fouls, knocked down a three, and made a tough layup inside to help Alumni get a little noisy.
Methnani’s burst off the bench would help the Stags build the lead to 27-19 with 6:25 to play in the opening half.
Niagara would use a spurt of offense from Dominik Fragala off the bench to pull the Purple Eagles within four, but Fairfield would finish the half of a 9-2 run to take a 41-30 lead into the locker room.
While the Stags look like they were comfortable on the scoreboard, Fairfield fans had seen this before.
In their previous two game, Fairfield lost leads of 17 and 13 respectively and had periods of sloppiness, selfishness, and immaturity.
With that being said, execution early in the second half was critical in Johnson’s huddle.
“It’s fair that two full halves of basketball at a high level has not been a strength of ours,” Johnson said. “We were laser focused on that, but it’s nothing new we’ve been saying.”
Fairfield would score the first six points of the second half to build their lead to 17 with eighteen minutes to play.
But there was still a sense of unsettlement in the air.
As the lead quickly got up to 17, it got down to 11 just as quickly, thanks to a quick six point run by Niagara.
This is where the Stags would begin to lose their composure right? This is where the wheels would fall off the bus.
Not this time.
For every punch Niagara threw at the Stags, they threw two more back. With a composed attitude and strong execution on both ends of the court, the Stags would get the lead up to 21, 69-48 with four minutes to play. They would take that large lead and coast to the 18 point win.
While the win is just a number on paper, it pays dividends for a team that for the most part, are going through this for the first or second time.
“We needed this win,” Jonathan Kasibabu said. “The guys are giving it everything they can. With so many young guys, it was tough to see how to win a basketball game. The talent is there. We just didn’t know how to finish. This win was huge.”
While they only had three players score in double figures, six players scored over six points. It was Kasibabu who stole the show, pouring in 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.
“The way I lead is by trusting the other guys,” Kasibabu said. “I don’t try to do everything by myself. We just have to play the right way.”
“Jonathan is at the heart of everything,” Johnson said about the senior leader. “He’s so genuine. He has the respect of the guys. He certainly has the respect of the coaching staff. He’s really role modelling for the guys.”
Fairfield (4-11, 1-2 MAAC) remain home and await a battle with St. Peter’s on Thursday evening. The difference between 1-2 and 0-3 in conference play is not a big one at this point of the season in Johnson’s eyes.
“I don’t think that way,” Johnson said about the difference from a coaching standpoint. “It really doesn’t allow you to focus on what’s present. I’m going to go home tonight, try to relax a little bit, and then I have to get ready for St. Peter’s whether we were 0-3 or 1-2.”
Niagara (7-8, 0-2 MAAC) return home and face off against Iona on Friday evening. Sitting at 0-2 in conference play, it is not unfamiliar territory for the Purple Eagles.
“We do the same thing we did last year. We lost our first two last year and then went 12-4,” Niagara head coach Chris Casey said. “We evaluate it, see what we did well, what we didn’t do well and move on to the next one.”
PHOTO: Wassef Methnani/Fairfieldstags.com