By Norman Rose (@ECoastBias)
ALBANY, NY -- With Fairfield's resilient 74-64 win over Quinnipiac in the MAAC Tournament semifinals, Sydney Johnson and the Stags reach the title game for the first time since 2012, where they lost to Loyola (MD). The Stags have now won seven straight and are 17-15 on the year.
Quinnipiac was game, but good defense and three games in three days caught up with the Bobcats, who finish 12-21 on the season.
"They've gotten better, we've gotten better, they've just taken it to another level than we could," said Quinnipiac coach Baker Dunleavy.
The Stags are surging late in the season after being 7-13 in late January, then 10-15 in mid-February. Tonight, they faced a stiff challenge from a Bobcats team that has played them close in both meetings this season.
Early in the game, Quinnipiac sent help every time senior guard Tyler Nelson touched the ball for Fairfield; in response, he kept the ball moving. Ferron Flavors, Jr. was the beneficiary of the lack of attention, scoring 14 on 4/6 shooting from outside the arc in the first half. He finished with 21 points and 11 total rebounds.
On the other side, Fairfield put pressure on freshman scorer Rich Kelly (7 points, 5 assists), who burned the Stags for 40 in their last meeting, the second of the season. He was held to 2 for 14 shooting, as the Stags approached him differently in their third matchup.
"Maybe game two, to be honest, we thought [Kelly] was a good facilitator and I don't think we respected his scoring as much," Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson said. "Not only can he get them set up, he can score, so we wanted to respect him as a scorer and a distributor [this time]."
"Their defense took away our initial looks," said Dunleavy. "We probably could have done a better job being more patient."
All game, Kelly found his way into the paint with deft dribble, but found himself surrounded by white jerseys. Inside the arc and surrounded, he struggled to connect on shots -- or distribute to his teammates. He had two points, two assists, three turnovers, blanketed by attention all half.
Dunleavy knows his young guard played, in his mind, the right way.
"I saw aggressiveness," Dunleavy said. "[When you shoot a lot], you're gonna have 40 at times, you're gonna go 2/14. They did a good job taking away his passes out, making him take some tough ones in the lane. There were mistakes, but there was no hesitation."
Fellow freshman scorer Jacob Rigoni was held to five in the half and received few touches. It was all about staying close to Rigoni, who scored 12, and not letting him get clean looks.
"We say [Rigoni]'s a driller," Johnson said, "Any open shot it goes in, bang. If he's not wide open, kinda making him do something different from what he's comfortable doing."
Quinnipiac was down as many as 12 points in the first half, but stormed back behind the scoring of slashing senior Cameron Young and their ability to get touches deep in the paint with senior forward Chaise Daniels, who punished the Fairfield interior players with strong back-down moves.
The Bobcats chipped away at the deficit in the second half, inching closer as senior forward Chaise Daniels and senior wing Cameron Young attacked the paint. Rich Kelly got a steal and easy fast brek layup. Young sized up Jesus Cruz, drove from the top of the key and drew a foul; after he made two foul shots, Quinnipiac was in the lead, 54-53.
Cruz, who was defending Young on the play, scored two on the other end to take the lead for good for the Stags.
That lead would not have been held over the last six minutes if not for senior Jerome Segura off the bench.
Segura's final output -- 8 points and a steal -- don't pop off the page, but those points came entirely in the second half, when the Stags needed him most. His defense on Cameron Young, too, slowed down the Bobcats' advancing threat enough for the Stags to come out with the win, and the shot at Iona tomorrow.
"I was watching the film last night, and Jerome was outstanding against Kelly in game two," Johnson said. "So I had it in the back of my head I'd have Jerome out there with him. Jerome was locked in."
"Defense is one of my roles on this team," Segura said. "Coach just came up with a great defensive game plan, I just followed it. I think our adjustment got under him and it worked."
"These games have always been between us so close," Johnson added. "[We were] 7-13 at one point this season - I don't know if I have coached a team as mentally tough as this one... they have just given me everything I've asked of them through some tough times."
Tomorrow, they face the tournament-tested Iona Gaels, whom they split with in the regular season. The year the Stags went to the finals, they defeated Iona on their way; Iona went to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. Tim Cluess' team has been in the finals in six of the seven years he has been head coach of the Gaels.
The Gaels are a far better team than the three Fairfield has played in the MAAC Tournament. But this team is on a confident after three straight convincing, double-digit wins, looking to stun Iona tomorrow.
"Our team believes we're gonna win this whole thing," said Segura. "There's no point in stopping now."
"To have this opportunity [at the MAAC Championship]," said senior captain Tyler Nelson, "you can't ask for anything else."