by Dan Gardella
Bridgeport – The Stags began their 2019-20 season with two straight games on their home floor to begin the Jay Young era at Fairfield. The Stags dropped their first game by a slim four points, but not before cutting a 15-point deficit down to two in four minutes before falling late to Bucknell. In a back and forth game, UMass erased a ten-point hole and came away with the 62-60 victory.
Early on, the Minutemen suffocated Fairfield with their full-court press, which according to Young, took away some of their offensive schemes that were planned.
“It took away our rhythm,” said Young. “We were trying to flow better from our press offense into our regular offense but we didn’t do that well. When we did get into our half-court offense, they made our catches deep.”
UMass took advantage of Fairfield’s discomfort offensively, holding them to eight points through the first nine minutes of the game and led 16-8. As the first half progressed, the Stags began to figure out how to beat the pressure and find open looks. Trailing by three with seven minutes to play, sophomore Calvin Whipple knocked down two shots from deep to give Fairfield their first lead in nearly 12 minutes.
Fairfield would not trail for the rest of the half, thwarting the UMass defense and holding the Minutemen to just 36% shooting in the opening half, which saw the Stags leading 31-24.
“Our defense wasn’t the problem,” said UMass head coach Matt McCall. “It was more offensively and finding easy shots and establishing the paint.”
Fairfield would get the lead as large as ten, with 16 minutes left to play after Jesus Cruz, the junior leader capped off a three-point play inside. But Young knew that UMass was just a few stops away from getting back in the game.
“I always thought a ten point lead with a team that pressing like that is a little different than a slower pace,” said Young. “I knew they were going to make a run.”
The Minutemen would turn up the pressure in a hurry. In the span of three minutes, the double digit lead was gone and the momentum had shifted the Minutemen’s way.
The game would shift hands six times over the final 12 minutes. However, behind freshman center Tre Mitchell, who finished with 18 points and 7 rebounds, UMass would knock down clutch shots and hold on to win by a basket.
“They do a good job of moving him around. He can shoot threes and plays around the mid-range area,” said Young of Mitchell. “When you look at where his baskets came from, they came from driving. We had some good moments, but he’s a top 75 kid in the country, and he lived up to it.”
In the span of four days, Fairfield would lose both games in the homestand by a combined six points. For Young, he believes that this is the start of what’s to come over the long season.
“We have to keep grinding every single day. We are going to get our fair share of these things. We have to be miserable about losing and get back in the gym.”
Fairfield was led by Landon Taliaferro, who scored 15 points and knocked down three three-pointers. Jesus Cruz scored 14 points and Wassef Methnani scored 10 himself. With the Stags down a point guard in Aidas Kavaliauskas, junior Taj Benning did it all. Benning scored seven points, grabbed seven rebounds, and dished five assists in nearly 40 minutes.
“He’s been amazing,” said Young. “We’ve asked him to do everything. We’re asking him to rebound, defend, and run the offense. It’s a lot to ask and he’s done an unbelievable job.”
From a coaching aspect, Young believes that he has a lot to learn, just like the players he coaches on the floor. After the game, Young looks ahead to his next opponent, Holy Cross, to see what he and his players can improve on.
Fairfield travels to Worchester, Mass. on Nov. 12 to take on Holy Cross.