By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – Looking to right the ship a bit and avoid a continued slump, Fairfield welcomed Canisius to Alumni Hall Saturday afternoon.
After failing to score for the first six minutes of the contest, the Golden Griffins clawed back and took down Fairfield 73-68 to improve to 4-2 in MAAC play.
Off the tip the Stags, who struggled in multiple areas in their 17 point loss to Monmouth Thursday night, opened the afternoon with extra energy, something that might have been hard to find on the road.
In their last win against St. Peter’s nine days ago, Sydney Johnson implemented a variety of defensive sets and cycled through them to keep the Peacocks off balance.
More of the same was the case for the Stags on this day. Johnson began the afternoon using a 1-3-1 zone to apply pressure to the guard-heavy Golden Griffins. Early on, Canisius could not get the friendly rolls and found themselves scoreless six minutes in.
“I think we were trying to figure things out,” Canisius head coach Reggie Witherspoon. “We made a science project out of it instead of moving the ball, crashing the offensive glass, and attacking. We got stagnant.”
The Golden Griffins eventually found the basket at the 13:50 mark when Marcale Lotts scored down low, but they saw themselves in an early 8-2 hole.
Along with continuing to stifle Canisius with their various defensive looks, Fairfield would begin to find their stroke from the perimeter. First, Calvin Whipple would come off the screen and knock down his first shot of the game followed by Jesus Cruz on the very next possession to build the lead to eight.
But after struggling early on, the Golden Griffins would see the Stag’s outside shooting and replicate it. Outside shots by Isaiah Reese and Jibreel Faulkner would bring the lead back down to four with eight and a half minutes to play in the opening half.
Canisius would cut the lead to just a bucket on a layup by Jalanni White to make it 18-16. Fairfield would respond with four straight points to bring the lead to six.
Like many times throughout the opening half, Canisius would not allow Fairfield to put their foot down and extend the lead more. Immediately after the lead was raised to six, the Golden Griffins would get three straight baskets from Takal Molson, Reese, and Lotts to knot things at 22 with just under four minutes to play.
Down the stretch of the sloppy half, the Stags scored four straight points before a late three by Canisius’ Malik Johnson would bring the game to halftime with Fairfield leading by a single point.
In a half where both teams managed to shoot below 40% from the field and combined for 17 turnovers, Fairfield’s Jesus Cruz had 11 to pace the Stags.
“He’s been playing well,” Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said of the sophomore. “He’s in a nice flow. He and Jonathan (Kasibabu) have been really consistent. It’s important for us to have him involved. I think the consistency is something the young guys are trying to grasp.”
To start the second half, Fairfield got a jumper from Jonathan Kasibabu to open the scoring but quickly picked up his third foul, resulting in him spending time on the bench.
Canisius saw this as a window.
After exchanging baskets for a few minutes, the Golden Griffins managed to take their first lead of the contest when Isaiah Reese converted on a layup to make it 31-30 two minutes into the fresh half.
The Stags however would make the Canisius lead short-lived as they scored on the other end 13 seconds later to re-take the lead with 16:32 to play.
Like the first half, the second half did not exactly start off with consistency and fireworks. The grind-it-out mentality continued. Both teams would exchange baskets as the half progressed, leading to three ties over the next three minutes.
But who would break through?
Canisius would be the first to try and separate themselves from the other as a 7-0 run over the span of two minutes helped give them a seven point lead.
Fairfield would snap the streak with a basket by Cruz but back to back three pointers by Jonathan Sanks would extend the Golden Griffins lead to 10, the largest of the contest, with under eight minutes to play.
Fairfield would try and find any source of energy from the crowd, from alley-oops to flashy plays, but ultimately, the Golden Griffins remained in control.
The Stags however, would not go away. After the lead rose as high as 13 for Canisius, Fairfield would score four straight points to cut it to nine before the final media timeout.
But try as they might, Fairfield could not match the wit and care on the offensive end as Canisius.
Down the stretch, the Stags played the fouling game but could not comeback, ultimately falling.
Canisius was led by Jibreel Faulkner, who scored 16 points. Isaiah Reese flirted with a triple-double and finished with 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists to help the Golden Griffins become winners of two straight and push their record in conference play to 4-2.
For a team that started 2-0, then lost two straight, to respond with two wins in a row again goes a long way for a group like the Golden Griffins.
“It’s very important,” guard Isaiah Reese said. “We just have to take this back home and win our game against Monmouth.”
Fairfield was led by Jesus Cruz who tied a career-high with 21 points. Over the past two contests, the Sydney Johnson offense has seem stuck in place with very little fluidity.
“As a coach, are we getting the shots we want,” Johnson said. “I think Canisius played good defense, but there were some breakdowns that we were able to create, and the ball didn’t go in.”
For Canisius, an adrenaline filled win against Quinnipiac led to a slow start for the Golden Griffins, but there was no drop off intensity-wise.
“I can’t put it on that,” Witherspoon said. “Fairfield did a really good. They executed what they wanted to get done. You have to give them credit.
For the Stags, now losers of three straight, it’s back to the drawing board.
“I think Monmouth was a step back for us,” Johnson said. “We didn’t go about our business. I liked who we were today. I think the whole ‘two halves’ thing is something we are aware of. We understand what two halves of basketball needs to look like.”
PHOTO: Isaiah Reese/buffalonews