It's a familiar story - plucky team has a good fight in them late at night, a quick turnaround in a conference tournament, then the reality sets in.
Top seed Monmouth knocked off fifth-seeded Fairfield, 76-63, improving to 27-6. Fairfield waits to hear about postseason play after ending the night at 19-13 in the MAAC Men's Semifinals. Monmouth faces Iona or Siena in the title game.
Early on, Fairfield took advantage of a Monmouth team that looked perhaps a bit rusty to start the game and led for much of the game's first 17 minutes. Monmouth's Justin Robinson started off slowly, with Stags keeping Robinson out of transition early. Robinson had a fast break dunk, but wasn't a scoring factor until scoring seven of his nine points late in the first half. But the size of Chris Brady, the physicality of Austin Tilghman and threes by Micah Seaborn and Deon Jones kicked off a 9-0 run by Monmouth gave the Hawks control. A 17-4 run to start the second half removed any doubt that the Monmouth Hawks would be playing for the MAAC Championship on Monday night at the Times Union Center.
Matija Milin led the Fairfield Stags with 16 points; Jerome Segura had 14, 12 in the first half. Jonathan Kasibabu fouled out, but had nine rebounds, as did Milin. But the Fairfield Stags went 1/14 in the second half from beyond the arc. The previous night, a long cold stretch (and going 1/7 from beyond the arc) allowed Saint Peter's back in the game. But the explosive Monmouth squad is much more talented. Micah Seaborn led the Monmouth Hawks with 17 points; Justin Robinson had 15 and nine rebounds (and yes, he really is 5'8").
MAYBE IT WAS JUST MONMOUTH'S TALENT
Last night, the Stags left around midnight, victorious over Saint Peter's. But despite about sixteen hours between leaving and the next game's tip off, the Stags wouldn't make excuses. "I don't think the turnaround had anything to do with the game," Stags coach Sydney Johnson said. "[Monmouth] played very well, they played at a championship level. We got away from a few of the things that help us play very well."
"For a little stretch there we lost a couple of their shooters," said senior guard Marcus Gilbert. "It just pushed the momentum for them. It took us a while to get back to our defensive assignments." "Basketball's a game of runs," said sophomore guard Tyler Nelson. "We didn't really make a comeback. But we kept fighting, that says a lot about us as a team." The Stags held the Hawks down with smart transition defense and some new wrinkles. "They came out in zone, it was a good plan," said Monmouth coach King Rice. "[The zone] slowed us down, made us stagnant for a while." But Monmouth is deep, and when one guard is faltering, others can pick things up. Fairfield doesn't have the luxury of such depth. So when last night's 20 point scorer struggles to find shots (Marcus Gilbert, who was 0/3 at the hald, 2/10 for the game for 10 points), there isn't enough to pick him up.
SOLID SEASON, CAN IT CONTINUE?
It wasn't a bad season for the Stags, who played only two seniors tonight - the scorer Marcus Gilbert and little-used forward Scott King. It's a 12-win improvement over last season's 7-24 season, and last year's youth. "We would gladly accept a postseason bid," said Johnson. "I think we have earned it. We would love to honor this team and keep the season going."
PRAISE FOR THE LEADERSHIP
The building of the program's culture was credited to the team's main scholarship senior, Gilbert. "[Marcus] has changed the program from day one," Sydney Johnson said. "I remember going to Providence and competing against them his sophomore year and he had 31 points. This year, we knew we were going to need his leadership. He's one of the best players this program has ever had. I can't say enough about him."
"I remember back in my freshman year," added Gilbert, "we had three great seniors who set the tone and how we have to go about our business. This year our leadership has really helped us improve." That leadership will return next year, with four of tonight's starters as freshmen or sophomores.
PASSING THE TORCH
The future looks bright for Sydney Johnson's club. "We closed the gap, but [Monmouth is] really, really good," Johnson said. "Obviously the gap wasn't closed enough. I thought [the Stags] played championship basketball. I refuse to be disappointed in our guys. "It's overwhelming - I'm so proud of them." The growth has been strong, with freshmen and sophomores hanging toe to toe with the best team in the conference. The freshman big men, Matija Milin and Jonathan Kasibabu had excellent stretches - with Milin stretching the floor and Kasibabu showing a mix of strength and quick enough feet to slow down guards without fouling. Tyler Nelson made some nice moves on offense, even if his shot wasn't as sharp as it has been for the Stags. And point guard Jerome Segura had strong defensive stretches against the MAAC Player of the Year, Justin Robinson.
"We came a bit short of Monday night, which was our goal," said Johnson. "These guys bought into me when a lot of [other] people weren't," he continued. "They bought into me at a time when it was a little dim. And look our bright our future is. We're gonna go out to eat and have a good time, because we enjoy being around each other."