by Dan Gardella
Bridgeport – After beginning conference play with back to back losses in which execution on both ends of the court was lacking, Sydney Johnson and the Fairfield Stags returned home and looked to make it two wins in a row as they welcomed St. Peter’s to Webster Bank Arena.
Following a dominating win against Niagara, Fairfield survived a late run by St. Peter’s as they escaped with the 60-57 victory to pick up their second straight MAAC win Thursday night.
In the last ten minutes of their last game, the Stags worked seamlessly on both ends of the court, going on small runs and locking down defensively to ensure a win.
Off the tip it was the Peacocks who got on the board early with a layup from Samuel Idowu. From that point on, they struggled putting the ball in the basket in large part to the different defensive sets the Stags were throwing at them.
“All you have to do is run movement,” St. Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway said about how to beat the defensive sets Fairfield used. “For some reason, our guys didn’t want to do it in the first half.”
With the Stags defending at a high level, the offense seemed flow a bit easier. Fairfield would score the next eleven points to prompt a Peacock timeout five and a half minutes in.
Over the next several minutes, the teams would trade baskets but ultimately, the Stags would still hold a firm, eleven point lead.
Although they held a double digit lead, they would struggle, going scoreless for three minutes and change allowing the Peacocks to climb back into it.
As St. Peter’s fought back, Fairfield countered with strong bench production from freshman Calvin Whipple, who scored seven points in the opening twenty minutes to help the Stags take a 30-23 lead into halftime.
“He’s really mature,” Johnson said of the freshman. “He’s a quick learner. He’s embraced the process. Along with Felix (Lemetti) and Neftali (Alvarez), we feel like we have a good freshman class.”
Early on in the second half, Fairfield, a team who usually lives on the perimeter, banged the ball inside to get easy looks on three straight possessions to open their lead back to double digits.
But as easy as the lead grew, it seemed even easier to shrink.
After remaining quiet in the first half, senior Davauhnte Turner connected on back to back three pointers to cut the lead to 36-32 with 16 minutes left. His two three pointers would be the beginning of a 16-1 run by the Peacocks to turn a ten point deficit into a five point lead, with no answer from the Stags.
“He’s our guy,” Holloway said of Turner. “We go as he goes. He got comfortable in the second half and allowed us to open it up.”
Even after squandering the lead, Fairfield remained composed and looked to respond, something that may not have happened just a few games ago. The Stags would pick up their consistency on the offensive end, continuing to find success inside as well as beginning to develop a stroke from the outside.
Following the big Peacock run and trailing for the next seven minutes, a Matija Millin made a three pointer from straight away to give Fairfield the 51-50 lead. From there, the two teams would exchange baskets without any team managing to pull away.
With the game close, Sydney Johnson elected to go with Kasibabu and Millin, the two senior leaders down the stretch of the game. Both would play big roles in their own way. Kasibabu would continue to lock down the paint while Millin, a stretch-forward knocked down crucial shots from the perimeter as well as defend at a high level.
“I think they’ve been through some of the battles,” Johnson said. “We have three winning seasons in a row, and they have been large parts of them. They know possession to possession to possession. I liked the experience they brought.”
Fairfield would get the lead to as much as five thanks to a pump fake leading to a drive and dunk by Kasibabu to make it 57-52. St. Peter’s would answer on the next trip down the floor as Idowu would get inside and convert to cut the lead back to three.
Fairfield would drain the shot clock down and put up a shot that clanked off of the rim. But Kasibabu managed to get into position and collect the offensive rebound, forcing the Peacocks to foul.
After Kavaliauskas managed to only make one of the two free throws, St. Peter’s saw the door open to comeback and looked to capitalize on the opportunity. Taylor Quinn drove down the lane and drew the foul and managed to only make one free throw as well.
However, Manny Dixon was able to grab the offensive rebound but immediately shot wildly, hitting the side of the backboard, allowing Fairfield to regain possession with 20 seconds left.
Kasibabu, who finished with a team high 17 points and 9 rebounds was fouled and made both free throws to give Fairfield the 60-55 lead with 18 seconds left.
Here’s where things get crazy.
With time winding down and St. Peter’s chances all but dashed, Quinn was fouled while shooting a three pointer to send him to the line with 2.3 seconds to play.
After making the first two, Quinn intentionally missed the third to try and regain possession. Millin was able to grab the rebound for the Stags but ultimately got tied up with a Peacocks player who forced the jump ball. The possession went over to St. Peter’s, down three, with 1.3 seconds to play.
“We tried to run some action,” Holloway said regarding the game plan on the final play. “We tried to confuse them a little bit. I knew Sammy (Idowu) would be wide open. It just fell a little short.”
Inbounding from under the Fairfield basket, the Peacocks ran off-ball screens and found Idowu atop the key for the equalizer that just missed.
As the final shot clanked off of the side rim, the Stags were winners of two straight games in conference to go along with a lot of learning that began before MAAC play.
“I got messy, obviously, the game got closer,” said senior Jonathan Kasibabu. “Guys stepped up to get more rebounds, guys stepped up to get charges. Those are the little things to help us win the game.”
Behind Kasibabu who led the charge, Jesus Cruz scored ten points and added five rebounds to help the Stags (5-11, 2-2 MAAC) win regardless of a quiet night from the team’s top two leading scorers in Landon Taliaferro and Neftali Alvarez.
St. Peter’s (4-11, 1-2 MAAC) was led by Turner, who scored 20 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and dished 4 assists. At 1-2 in the conference, being home and winning there as crucial to the Peacock’s success as winning away from home.
“You have to take care of home. We go home on Sunday. We just have to find a way to also win on the road,” Holloway said.
Fairfield now embarks on a two game road trip, stopping at in-state rival Quinnipiac before traveling to Monmouth.
“Our team has shown a lot of character,” Johnson said on the team’s effort. “Some people wanted us to pack it in and forget the season. We just embraced it. We know it is a marathon.”