Having already led Fairfield to first-round bye in MAAC Tournament, Tyler Nelson takes next step as Stags face off against Siena in quarterfinals Saturday night. (Photo by Fairfield University Athletics)
Fairfield's sweep of the Western New York swing to conclude the regular season did more than just salvage a stretch run that fell short of the Stags' expectations, it also gave a contender renewed confidence heading into the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament.
"It's hard to win on the road," head coach Sydney Johnson admitted before Fairfield (16-13, 11-9 MAAC) takes on Siena in what could be described as a road game in their quarterfinal matchup at 9:30 Saturday night. "For us, we were able to just come closer together as a team at a really key point. We're looking to build on that and try to go up to Albany in the best shape that we can be."
Not only are the Stags facing the tall order of taking down a team on its home floor, they are also in the late game on Saturday for a second consecutive season. Last year, Fairfield defeated Saint Peter's from the same No. 5 seed they come to the Times Union Center as this weekend, and faced Monmouth in the semifinals on a 17-hour turnaround between the completion of the quarterfinals and opening tip of the semis. This season, the Hawks are once again waiting in the wings, and there is no escaping the arduousness of the task at hand in attempting to dethrone the regular season champions on short rest.
"I think it's very difficult, there's no doubt about it," said Johnson. "We did have a 9 p.m. game at Quinnipiac a couple of weeks ago, so I think the late hour isn't as bad, but it is a pretty quick turnaround. We're just happy to try to keep playing. If that's what we can do and if that's what the Lord wills, I'm not going to complain about the game time."
One thing going in Fairfield's favor is the recent take-charge play of Tyler Nelson, a first team All-MAAC selection in his junior campaign. Nelson's buzzer-beating three-pointer gave the Stags a valuable win at Canisius, and his late free throws helped seal a victory at Niagara in the last game of the regular season.
"I'm really proud and borderline emotional," Johnson gushed after Nelson was named an all-conference player for the second straight season. "The kid has been tremendous for us. I've put a lot on his plate and challenged him a lot, and he just takes it all in and then just goes out and does it. He's just a very talented kid."
"I'm really proud of how he's going about his business," Johnson further intimated. "He's obviously a very good player for us, but certainly a kid that a lot of the other guys can follow because he's gotten better, and I just can't stress enough the mental toughness and the ability to take coaching. I'm really proud of his growth this year."