Thursday, March 1, 2018

Nelson leads Fairfield into MAAC tourney one last time as Stags carry momentum into Albany

Tyler Nelson's farewell tour begins this weekend in Albany, but for Fairfield's senior guard, providing one lasting impression with MAAC championship is ultimate goal. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

For all the accomplishments on Tyler Nelson's ledger, and there are many -- Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-Rookie selection, multiple all-conference honors, Preseason Player of the Year; and most recently, Fairfield's all-time leading scorer -- one thing is missing from the resume of the Stags' senior guard: A championship moment.

But regardless of whether or not the Massachusetts native can strap his team on his back one more time this weekend, he can rest soundly knowing his legacy has already been burnished in grand fashion.

"You've got to have God-given talent, which he has," head coach Sydney Johnson gushed of his star player and what it has taken to reach the level at which he stands before Fairfield (14-15) opens MAAC Tournament play tonight against Marist. "You've got to be really competitive, which he is, and you've got to get better. He went from a catch-and-shoot guy to now where he's the total package -- deep threes, mid-range, all the way to the rim, playmaking ability, clutch shots. He's just really expanded his game, but he's been consistent and competitive and gotten better, and he's tough. People are physical with him and certainly locked in on him, and I think he's handled that stuff pretty well."

In addition to having a veteran leader the likes of Nelson, the Stags also have the most momentum of any team converging upon Albany this weekend, coming in the form of a four-game win streak to end the regular season on the precipice of a first-round bye after being just one game removed from last place in the conference two weeks ago.

"I think that we learned how to try to win games, how to stay resilient, and I think it's just a better look," Johnson said of Fairfield's late surge, which coincided in direct proportion to the insertion of point guard Aidas Kavaliauskas into the starting lineup. "The guys believe -- I think that's the biggest thing -- they believe in what we're coaching, and certainly they believe in each other, so it's certainly a good way to go into the tournament."

"Last year, we were skilled and talented, but our belief in each other might not have been as strong as this group is. It's been a lot of fun to see that grow."

The cultivation continues tonight against a Marist team that split both of its regular season meetings with the Stags, with each team protecting their home floor to a victory, the Red Foxes doing so in overtime. While junior guard Brian Parker commands most of the attention for Marist, and rightfully so, there are more factors to take into account, and Johnson recognizes that.

"They're just so offensively explosive, I really mean that," said Johnson of Marist head coach Mike Maker and his program. "They just score the ball at a high clip and they run great offense, and their kids are just smart and good with their reads, so that's a challenge. You play a team that's disciplined, but can play."

"I just like how Mike does it. He's got four-year kids who bought into the program and bought into everything that he's doing, so we're going to have to prepare really well. They drilled us at their place and we were able to win when we came back, so now; third game, we'll see what happens. I know they'll be prepared. We'll be prepared, and hopefully we can play well."

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