Stags rally to top Monmouth
BRIDGEPORT — It took a loss, if you take Sydney Johnson at his word, to jump-start this recent Fairfield regular season ending winning streak.
The suddenly resurgent Stags posted their fourth straight victory and won for the eighth time in their last 12 games with yet another come-from-behind victory, this one a 69-66 decision over Monmouth Saturday at the Webster Bank Arena. Fairfield will now head into the MAAC tournament as either the No. 5 or the No. 6 seed in Albany, with a full tank of emotion and positive vibes as they look to bring home another postseason appearance for their leader, Tyler Nelson, but this one, a potential NCAA berth.
“We’re going into the tournament with the mindset of getting it done. Everyone’s confident right now,” junior forward Jonathan Kasibabu said. “The past two years I’ve been here we’ve come up short and this year, Tyler Nelson is leading us and we want his legacy to leave with a championship. We don’t want him to leave here being the all-time scorer without a championship, so that’s our mindset. We have to get it done.”
Fairfield improved to 14-15 on the season and 9-9 in the MAAC. If Quinnipiac can upset Manhattan today, the Stags would be the No. 5 seed and face the No. 4 seed on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. If the Jaspers win, Fairfield would be the No. 6 seed and play the No. 11 seed on Thursday at 9 p.m.
The four-game winning streak to end the season is the longest streak since 1985-86 when the Stags also won its last four in a row, en route to a MAAC tournament championship and an NCAA tournament berth.
Ironically, Johnson feels it was that overtime loss to Marist on January 13 that started this reversal of fortunes.
“I know that we’re playing well,” Johnson said. “This all started some weeks before … I thought a big moment for us was that overtime loss at Marist. We did some really good things, there was a lot of belief in that game, we had a shot to win it in regulation and that didn’t go our way but over the next few days in practice, there were eager eyes and hearts to keep this thing going. I thought that was a key moment for us and we’ve looked different ever since.”
Indeed. Fairfield posted 104 points in a win over Niagara, 103 in beating Iona, they went to Monmouth and won, they beat Siena (never easy, period) and after two losses in Buffalo, Fairfield has answered the call, beating Marist, Quinnipiac, Siena and Monmouth to stand poised to try and bring home its first MAAC title since 1996-97.
“We’re playing good basketball right now and I know we can play better,” Nelson said. “That’s the positive thing, we can keep playing better.”
In the wins over the Bobcats and the Saints, Fairfield found itself trailing at halftime and had to rally in the second half to win. Guess what? The Stags were down to the Hawks 59-48 with just 5:46 to play. Ballgame, right? Wrong.
Fairfield put together a game-ending 21-7 run, allowing Monmouth just one basket over that span, as Nelson and Kasibabu took over, putting together several high-low plays to highlight the comeback win.
“Tyler really knows how to find me down low,” said Kasibabu, who scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and handed out four assists in 20 minutes. “It’s like, when everyone doesn’t expect it, when I’m down there and he puts the ball right there and I’m like … he knows when to find me.”
Nelson, meanwhile, despite struggling with his shot — he was 3 of 11 from 3-point range and 7 of 17 overall, still finished with 23 points, netting nine in that game-ending run.
“We were struggling but we were sticking with it. We had a lot of open shots, we just weren’t making them,” Nelson said. “We weren’t worried about that, we were locked into getting stops defensively and if we battled down there and got stops we’d eventually start making shots and we’d come back.”
Down 59-48, Nelson made two layups and hit a 3, Ferron Flavors made a 3 and Kasibabu added a dunk (off a give-and-go) and made two free throws to pull Fairfield within 63-62. Two free throws from Aidas Kavaliauskas put the Stags in front 64-63 with 1:17 left and Kasibabu’s layup with 36 seconds left gave Fairfield a 66-64 lead.
Monmouth’s Zac Tillman missed a shot with 22 seconds left and Kasibabu got the rebound and was fouled. He made one for a 67-64 lead and after Deion Hammond made two free throws to cut the lead to 67-66 with 9.9 seconds left, Fairfield pulled off the Hail Mary pass as Jesus Cruz found Nelson open racing downcourt for the open layup - only after he stopped at the basket and waited a good two seconds before scoring because his defender had tripped at midcourt.
“I’m worn out with superlatives about the guy,” Johnson said of Nelson. “What more can you say? I hope and pray that I have an opportunity to coach for a very long time and I’ll come across another player like him. I’ve had great ones at Princeton, I worked with great ones at Georgetown but I don’t know if they’re better than him. He’s been an absolute dream. An incredible player.”
Nelson was honored in a pre-game ceremony as Fairfield’s new all-time leading scorer. Tony George, who Nelson passed to become No. 1, was in attendance. “It’s a great accomplishment,” said George, who has been the director of the Jones County (Ga.) Tax Assessors Office since 2003. “Tyler embodies what it means to be a student-athlete at Fairfield.”
“It was a special moment to be honored like that. To have Tony George, A.J. Wynder and Joe DeSantis there, three of the best players in Fairfield history be here to watch the game, to share all that with my teammates was pretty cool. But after that, I knew I had to focus on the game.” - Tyler Nelson on the pre-game ceremony honoring him as the new all-time scoring leader.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Jonathan Kasibabu. The junior forward scored 20 points, seven coming in the last 2:18, and he finished with 10 rebounds and four assists, his fifth straight double figure scoring game.
Fairfield 69, Monmouth (Nj) 66
MONMOUTH (NJ) (11-19) — Martin 2-6 0-0 5, Tillman 3-6 1-2 7, Hammond 4-7 3-3 14, Tilghman 1-5 1-4 4, Seaborn 0-5 2-2 2, Traore 2-2 0-0 4, Quinn 2-4 2-4 6, Salnave 4-13 5-5 14, McClary 3-4 0-2 6, Papas 0-0 0-0 0, L.Pillari 1-4 2-2 4. Totals 22-56 16-24 66.
FAIRFIELD (14-15) — Kasibabu 5-7 9-12 20, Harper 0-0 0-0 0, Segura 4-9 1-3 10, Nelson 7-17 6-6 23, Flavors 3-10 0-1 7, Senghore-Peterson 0-0 0-0 0, El-Sheikh 0-1 2-4 2, Methnani 1-1 1-1 3, Cruz 1-4 0-0 2, Benning 0-1 0-0 0, Kavaliauskas 0-3 2-2 2. Totals 21-53 21-29 69.
Halftime — Monmouth (NJ) 36-30. 3-Point Goals — Monmouth (NJ) 6-18 (Hammond 3-5, Tilghman 1-2, Martin 1-4, Salnave 1-4, Seaborn 0-3), Fairfield 6-28 (Nelson 3-11, Kasibabu 1-2, Segura 1-5, Flavors 1-7, Benning 0-1, Kavaliauskas 0-2). Fouled Out — Tilghman, Seaborn. Rebounds — Monmouth (NJ) 32 (Tillman, Quinn 6), Fairfield 33 (Kasibabu 10). Assists — Monmouth (NJ) 14 (Tilghman 4), Fairfield 12 (Kasibabu 4). Total Fouls — Monmouth (NJ) 24, Fairfield 22. Att: 1,341 (9,000).