Justin Robinson shows some elevation with first half dunk in Monmouth's 76-63 victory over Fairfield, bringing Hawks into MAAC championship game. (Photo courtesy of Monmouth University Athletics)
ALBANY, NY -- One year ago, Monmouth advanced to the semifinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament, where they were subsequently humbled and buried by a barrage of three-pointers in a 95-77 loss to Iona, who connected on a tournament record 19 treys to reach the championship game.
Today, Monmouth is moving on, thanks in large part to a 28-6 run that spanned the end of the first half and beginning of the second in the Hawks' (27-6) 76-63 victory over Fairfield (19-13) at the Times Union Center.
"I've been telling my kids all along, they know what to do in every situation," said King Rice, whose team will now face either Iona or Siena on Monday, with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on the line. "We started guarding, and we came out on top."
Justin Robinson, who was held to just nine points on 1-of-12 shooting in Monmouth's quarterfinal matchup against Rider on Friday, righted the ship to some degree, scoring 15 points and securing nine rebounds on 6-of-11 shooting, second only to the 17 markers posted by Micah Seaborn, the MAAC's Rookie of the Year.
"My primary focus is never on scoring when I enter a game," said Robinson, the MAAC Player of the Year. "But me and Micah talked after the game and basically said, 'well, it can't get any worse,' so we were just coming out and being aggressive, getting easy buckets, trying to get to the rim first. I can't score without them, so credit to these guys. They're always behind me, telling me to be aggressive without being aggressive enough."
In a game similar to how the encounter between Monmouth and Fairfield on January 11 started, the Stags got out to an early lead, using hot shooting to go up 30-21 with 5:54 remaining in the first half. But the Hawks responded with nine straight points to tie the score, and took the lead for good with 2:43 on the clock in the opening stanza on a Robinson three-pointer.
With 27 wins entering tomorrow's championship encounter, Rice admitted his team's body of work speaks for itself should Monmouth come up short and be thrust into the middle of conversations for an at-large spot, yet at the same time recognized just how significant the precipice on which his team stands truly is.
"We feel very fortunate to be here, to represent the MAAC and our school," he said. "To be playing for a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament is amazing. You don't get to go to this thing a lot, guys. These guys have never been, I've been as a player and a coach a couple of times. It's the coolest thing for your school, your kids, your league, and it's hard to get to."
"We're playing for a lot tomorrow," Rice conceded. "We're playing against one great team, we'll see how it goes. We want it badly, we think it's our time, and we're going to fight hard for it."