Marcus Gilbert exploded against Manhattan for second consecutive game, going for 24 points as Fairfield defeated Jaspers 67-54 in MAAC opener. (Photo courtesy of the Connecticut Post)
Nearly eleven months ago, Fairfield erased an 0-7 start to conference play with a convincing victory over eventual MAAC champion Manhattan. The two teams had not met since then, but the ensuing 40 minutes of play provided a similar feeling.
After missing their first ten shots and trailing 8-1 through the first eight minutes, the Stags regrouped, getting a season-high 24 points from Marcus Gilbert to repel the Jaspers by the final of 67-54, improving to 3-5 on the season and 1-0 in MAAC play, sending Manhattan to 1-5 to further the hard-luck start for a team just six days removed from losing to George Mason on a 75-footer at the buzzer.
Following the win, the Stags travel to Hamden to meet in-state rival Quinnipiac on Sunday, while Manhattan returns home for the first time this season to welcome Marist into Riverdale.
"I think it shows a lot about this group," Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said of his young team's resolve after a lackluster beginning. "It shows we're coming together, we've got some good talent. For us to get down 8-1 in national TV and keep plugging away, I just think they like each other and their minds are focused on this being a different year, and it showed in those minutes where we kept coming."
After the 8-1 start, Fairfield went on a 15-3 run to seize control late in the first half, doing so in much the same fashion they did last year, when Manhattan trailed by as many as 19 before a furious rally in the final minutes made a 71-67 final score much closer than the game let on back on January 18. Leading 27-22 at halftime, the Stags opened the floodgates, unleashing a 13-2 run that culminated in five unanswered points for Gilbert, finishing a K.J. Rose transition steal for a dunk before draining an NBA-range three-pointer on his next trip down the Webster Bank Arena floor.
"Give them credit," an exasperated Steve Masiello said of Fairfield. "They made shots. There's something to be said for that. No excuses. We're not the healthiest group, I think we're seeing that a little bit.
Ashton Pankey's 23 points for Manhattan were a career-high for the former Maryland expatriate, who was one of few bright spots for a team who turned the ball over 21 times and shot 15-of-27 at the free throw line. Emmy Andujar contributed 10 points and fell just one rebound short of a double-double.
In addition to Gilbert, Steve Johnston added 15 points off the bench, while Mike Kirkland chipped in with 10 of his own, but the star of the show was the junior swingman, who exploited Manhattan for the second time in a calendar year.
"I think I could find the holes in their zone that they play," Gilbert stated when asked of how he matches up against the Jasper defense. "I just rise up and shoot, and knock them down. This is a long, long game. We definitely didn't hang our heads. We've just got to keep going. Everybody has their runs, so we just made our run, and our run was bigger than theirs."