Saturday, February 27, 2016

Saint Peter's concludes regular season with sweep of Fairfield

Elias Desport provided final lasting impression with 12 points and seven rebounds as Saint Peter's swept Fairfield to end regular season at 12-8 in MAAC play. (Photo courtesy of Saint Peter's University Athletics)

JERSEY CITY, NJ -- Saint Peter's paid tribute to its lone senior Saturday afternoon before the game by playing the Swedish national anthem in honor of Stockholm native Elias Desport.

The four-year stalwart reciprocated with perhaps the finest performance of a career that, though lost in the shadows, certainly provides more to his value than meets the eye.

With 12 points and seven rebounds in his final regular season home game, Desport was perhaps one of the more integral pieces for Saint Peter's (14-15, 12-8 MAAC) as the Peacocks swept Fairfield, (18-12, 12-8 MAAC) walking off the Yanitelli Center floor for the last time this season with a resilient 72-68 victory over the Stags, assuring themselves of a top-four finish in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the first time since their improbable march to the NCAA Tournament in 2011.

"I was trying to play with a free mind and trying to enjoy the moment," said Desport as he ended the afternoon one point off his career-high 13, set against Seton Hall in 2014. "I'm going to miss this environment. They say it's cliched, but I saved the best for last."

"This team has matured a lot through the course of the season," head coach John Dunne assessed of the Peacocks, who end the regular season having won six of their final eight games following a five-game losing streak that dropped them from the top of the MAAC standings. "I think in November, we would have lost this game by 12 points or so, but at the end of the day, mentally, we were strong enough to hang in there and give ourselves an opportunity to make plays at the end."

In the opening stanza, Saint Peter's defensive efforts harkened back to their triumph over Fairfield in last year's MAAC tournament, when the Peacocks held a 22-7 halftime lead against the Stags, who made just two field goals in that first period and received no offensive contributions from anyone besides Tyler Nelson. Nelson scored Fairfield's first 10 points today as well, and the Stags soon rebounded from a start in which they missed all but one of their first ten attempts from the field, fighting back to take the lead before Antwon Portley's three-pointer shortly before the buzzer sent the home team to the locker room with a slim 38-37 advantage.

Saint Peter's gained some separation early in the second half with an 11-2 run, taking a 51-42 lead with 12:37 to play in regulation, but Fairfield would respond with a 7-0 spurt to pull within two, at 51-49, before Quadir Welton scored 13 of the next 15 Peacock points to counterpunch a scrappy Stags unit that continually ensured the game remained a one-possession affair. The junior forward would eventually finish with 20 points and 12 rebounds, furthering his late push at potential first team all-MAAC honors.

"It would be an honor to be on the first team, but it really doesn't matter at the end of the day," said Welton, who recorded his tenth double-double of the season. "We're just trying to get a MAAC championship and show everybody we're better than the ninth seed," alluding to where the Peacocks were picked to finish in the league's preseason poll.

With the win, Saint Peter's is in position to potentially clinch the No. 3 seed in the tournament, which they can do if Quinnipiac beats Siena tomorrow. If Siena ends up the victor, the Peacocks will be the No. 4 seed, the same spot they were in when they cut down the nets in Bridgeport five years ago, and would face Fairfield for a third time after the Stags' loss clinched the No. 5 seed for Sydney Johnson's team.

"I think we're mentally tough, and we can beat them a third time," Welton said of a potential rematch with the Stags, against whom Saint Peter's has won seven of the last eight meetings between the two schools. "We just have to keep locking down on defense."

His senior teammate, though, was more diplomatic in his assessment.

"It could go both ways, to be honest," Desport admitted. "We might get a little lax and think, 'well, we already beat them, so we know what to do.' We've just got to stay focused and stay level, and understand that nothing is promised."

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