By Dan Gardella
Fairfield – If you followed mid-major basketball last March, you would know that Fairfield was a few points away from the top of the mid-major mountain: a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But few people don’t realize the path that the Stags took to get to that point.
After starting conference play 1-5, they hit their stride, finishing the season 9-9 in MAAC play, and ran their way to the championship game, where they fell.
Fast forward to this season, after their loss against Siena on January 24th. The Stags were losers of four straight and sat at 2-6 in conference play. Sydney Johnson’s team looked disarrayed, out of sorts, and looking for some kind of an identity.
But in mid-major conferences, it only takes one win to swing the tide.
Fairfield got that big win, beating Iona 80-68 to snap their losing streak. The Gaels were coming off a victory against MAAC-leading Rider.
Following a weak 48 point performance by the Stags in their loss to Siena, it did not appear that their previous offensive performance would linger into Sunday’s contest.
“I think the guys did a good job of resetting,” Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said. “Every game is its own. I think our practice was pretty good in terms of preparing. We had some honest, frank conversations. We felt that last three games we haven’t been ourselves.”
Honest and frank. Something you need to be when you are 5-15.
“I told the guys you can success in the game when you have a clear mind,” Johnson said.
The clear-minded Stags looked the part early on, scoring the first ten points of the game, something that was a struggle a few nights ago.
Fairfield got off the blocks hot and put Iona on its heels and forced them to play behind all game. While the Stags were executing offensively, Iona wasn’t doing itself any favors with their sloppy play.
“We threw the ball away so many times, we didn’t give ourselves the chance to make a real run,” Iona head coach Tim Cluess said. “Last game against them, we didn’t do that”
With their recent fast-paced offense creating more turnovers than good shots, Johnson wanted to change how things were run on offense. Johnson elected to utilize Aidas Kavaliauskas in the rotation, alongside freshman Neftali Alvarez to ensure the ball would be controlled by Fairfield.
“My freshman year at Princeton, I was a train wreck,” Johnson said. “But I had a senior point guard. His name was Mike Brennan. He would point me all over the floor to where I needed to be.”
Kavaliauskas played the role of the big brother to Alvarez, not only in showing him the ropes offensively, but playing with consistency. In the 23 minutes Kavaliauskas played, he scored two points, grabbed five rebounds, dished two assists, and had two steals.
After a season in which Kavaliauskas took on a big role as the starting point guard, he knows what it takes to be down and comeback to finish the year on a strong note.
“This win was big for us mentally,” Kavaliauskas said. “This can be a big part of us to keep moving from now on. We’ve lost so many game by a few points. We know we can play with every team.”
In the victory, sophomore Jesus Cruz scored a career-high 24 points, scoring from inside and out to help the Stags grab the lead early on, and withstand any run Iona may have had in them.
“We were just trying to do whatever it takes to win,” Cruz said. “We knew what we had to do. The coaching staff prepared us in the right way and we were able to execute, play hard, and play together. Good things happen when we do those things.”
With the win, Fairfield (6-15, 3-6 MAAC) face a tough task ahead, with six of their last nine games of the season away from home. Up next, they take a trip to Draddy Gymnasium to meet with Manhattan, a team that pressures you defensively for all 40 minutes.
Although they came away with the win, Fairfield still sits near the bottom of the MAAC at the halfway point of the conference season. With that being said, there is still time.
“We hate the bottom,” senior forward Jonathan Kasibabu said. “After the past game, we really needed this win. Guys understand that being selfish is not going to help anybody.”
PHOTO: Jesus Cruz/fairfieldstags.com