Sunday, February 11, 2018

Wagner sees need to refocus as win streak comes to halt at FDU

Bashir Mason looks on as Wagner battles Fairleigh Dickinson Sunday. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

TEANECK, NJ -- The first two offensive possessions may have served as a portent of the afternoon, as Wagner committed a shot clock violation on both trips. 

For the Seahawks, it was a reminder the road, only about 30 miles removed, was not going to be friendly, as Wagner's seven-game win streak came to an end at the hands of Fairleigh Dickinson, falling by a score of 76-69 at the Rothman Center.

Entering this matchup, Wagner (18-7, 11-3 NEC) had the Northeast Conference's second-highest offensive efficiency, but could not overcome FDU's defense in the first half, something head coach Greg Herenda later called “the best 20 minutes of defensive basketball we played since I’ve been here.”

As a result, the Knights built a 15-point halftime lead, holding Wagner to just two field goals in the final eight minutes of the opening stanza, a lockdown that Bashir Mason attributed to not coming out firing on all cylinders.

“We talked after the game in the locker room,” he said. “We didn’t have it. We were in slow motion coming out. No execution on offense and no defense, you can put that under the category of it.”

Wagner's run would have to wait coming out of the locker room, as FDU continued their run, stretching their lead to as many as 18 before the Seahawks began to whittle away, pushing the ball, attacking the basket and hitting three-pointers. Suddenly FDU’s lead was down to a very manageable eight with just over twelve minutes remaining. However, each time the visitors hoped to get closer, FDU would answer with a three of their own; courtesy of either Darnell Edge or Jahlil Jenkins, to keep the visitors at bay. 

It appeared the Knights had weathered the run and settled down. Showing resilience, Wagner rallied again, cutting their deficit to four with 4:27 to play. Each time FDU answered and appeared to have breathing room, Wagner came right back, fueled by Romone Saunders hitting one clutch shot after another on his way to a game-high 25 points, leading the charge from a backcourt that also saw Blake Francis post 16 points.

“Both Saunders and Francis came up big for us,” Mason said. “They showed a lot of heart out there.”

In the final minutes, Wagner would repeatedly cut the lead to four again, but was unable to get any closer. 

“In the second half we picked it up on both ends,” said Mason. “We had sequences where we got the lead to six or four but just couldn’t get anything through that.”

Wagner remains atop the NEC by two games. Winning the regular season is special, but in the NEC comes the bonus of hosting home games in the conference tournament games as long as they remain alive. Hopes are high on the Staten Island conference that this is the year, one where the Seahawks stand atop a ladder to cut the championship net for the first time since 2003. Two years ago the Seahawks hosted this same FDU program in the championship, only to be upset by the white-hot Knights. Last season, Wagner earned a home semifinal game, but lost on Keith Braxton's buzzer-beater as Saint Francis University advanced. Hopes may still be high, but this afternoon served as a reality check.

No coach wants to lose a game. It is a lot easier to learn a lesson after something good happens, but more meaningful if the lesson is given during a moment of adversity. The silver lining Mason feels is this can be a lesson in what lies ahead. 

“In the long run, this can be good for us,” he said. “This will refocus us and say reminds us that the next three weeks is what it’s all about. And the results yesterday, as well as our game today, will be similar to the remaining three weeks.”

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