Marcus Gilbert's 17 points and four three-pointers were enough to lift Fairfield to first MAAC win of season in Stags' 71-67 upset of Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Big Apple Buckets)
Just over one week removed from a close loss to Iona that saw Sean Armand held without a field goal for the first time in nearly two years, it was evident that Fairfield was slowly turning the corner after a lackluster start.
The Stags now have concrete proof of their improvement, rallying behind nine three-pointers and a defense that forced 16 turnovers in a 71-67 upset over MAAC favorite Manhattan, giving Fairfield its first conference win after an 0-7 start.
"For 40 minutes, humbly speaking, we were the better team," Stags head coach Sydney Johnson said after the game, "and that makes me feel good about us, especially how young we are."
After trading baskets with the Jaspers in the opening minutes, Fairfield gained the lead on a Maurice Barrow layup with 13:59 remaining in the first half, putting the Stags ahead 9-7 and providing a lead that would ultimately never be relinquished despite a late Manhattan rally in the final minutes.
"He's a dream to coach," Johnson said of Barrow; who paced the Stags with 18 points, "and he's inspiring and motivating for everybody. I think this afternoon, we saw multiple guys match his intensity and his effort."
Marcus Gilbert contributed 17 points of his own for Fairfield, including several uncontested looks from both corners throughout the night, channeling the performances usually reserved for Manhattan sharpshooter Shane Richards, who missed all but one of his nine field goal attempts as the Jaspers fell to 13-4, suffering just their second loss in MAAC play as the preseason pick to win the conference continues to adjust to life without George Beamon, who is still nursing a shoulder injury suffered last week against Quinnipiac.
"I didn't like one thing about our team today," Steve Masiello remarked about Manhattan's effort, which saw a late comeback fueled by Michael Alvarado's game-high 22 points after Fairfield stretched its lead to 19 points with 17:21 to go in regulation with a 44-25 margin fall just short as the Stags continually made clutch free throws. "Our program is built on playing harder than your opponent, being more ready than your opponent, and having more urgency. We didn't do any of those today."
While Fairfield travels to Nashville to contest a game with perennial mid-major power Belmont that was rescheduled due to inclement weather, Manhattan now focuses on another conference showdown with a deceptively strong Rider team that brings back most of its core from a second-place finish in MAAC play last season.
"You always try to find a positive," Masiello admitted, "and the positive to this is that it happened now and not March 6th. There's still 12 conference games left. There's still a ton of basketball to be played."