A few days ago I was looking at the empty Friday the 13th on my calendar. I said to myself there has to be a Division I game that I can attend that evening. Then I looked at ESPN's entire college basketball schedule for January 13th and noticed they had originally listed two ESPNU games for 7:00 P.M.; Cleveland State vs. Butler and Loyola Md vs. Fairfield.
I knew that had to be a misprint. I figured since the Niagara-Iona game was the 9:00 P.M. game, it was probably the MAAC game that was the late game. But I got caught up in work, home life and miraculous comebacks
and forgot about checking the Fairfield game. Then late yesterday morning at work, I decided to check again and sure enough, the Loyola vs. Fairfield game was the 9:00 P.M. game. And I verified this by going to the Fairfield athletics site.
On a hunch, I called my dear friend Tony, aka Tieff, to see if he was available. And I knew what would seal the deal. Dinner at Frank Pepe's in Fairfield
, only a few minutes from Webster Bank Arena. Tieff was all for it. I called my wife at home and told her of the tentative plans. The deal was that I had to bring back a pizza for her. Done. And my older son was aboard for the game as well, since he has seriously caught college basketball fever. And the only prescription is not more cowbell, but live college basketball. I picked up Matthew from home and then Tieff from his house. Then it was on our way to Fairfield.
I first learned about Frank Pepe's from my good friend Bob, who is the equipment manager at C.W. Post and also works Hofstra games. He came across Pepe's years ago in his travels from Post and Iona games. And he immediately made two Pepe's disciples out of Tieff and Me. Pepe's has been making wood oven pizza since 1925. There is the original one in New Haven near Yale University and six other locations, including the one in Fairfield.
We surprisingly made good time on I-95 and made it to Frank Pepe's around 7:20 PM. There was a line of course for tables, but it went very quickly. Matthew, Tieff and I had a corner table. The waitress came by and we ordered one small cheese pie for Matthew, one large oven roasted chicken, bacon and mozzarella for us, and two pies to take home; one large mushroom for the Mrs. and one garlic pie for Tieff's wife.
To describe Pepe's pizza, well it's just plain delicious. The bacon in a wood fire pizza is just downright perfect. And as you can see the large pie is huge. Matthew wasn't very hungry, or so he said, and had one piece of his pizza (later he had his standard pretzel at the game). When we were done, we had four boxes we were taking out. Then it was on our way to Webster Arena.
It was a very cold night in the tri state area, with wind gusts around forty miles per hour. Earlier in the day, a wind gust blew down a giant billboard on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway causing massive delays in the area. Thankfully, our worst wind issue was standing outside on line for tickets for the game. It didn't take long to get tickets and that should have been an indicator to me of the crowd for the game.
Fairfield has for some time now decided to play many of its home games at Webster Bank Arena at the Bridgeport Harbor Yard. It was a strange decision because it is not near the campus of Fairfield and to be honest, the Stags don't draw enough to fill even half of the arena. Let me put it to you this way. I was able to get three third row center court seats right before game time. There were no students in the student section under the basket and the size of the arena overwhelmed the two thousand fans in attendance.
This wasn't my first game at Webster Arena. I was here with Tieff a couple of years ago for a Bracketbuster game between Fairfield and Hofstra. One thing stood out to me the last time I was here; that god awful curtain that Ray Curren mentioned in his recent Eight Hundred Games Project article about Fairfield
. It's a reminder that some programs should just stick with their on-campus gym instead of playing in a hockey arena. Every time a basket was made by Fairfield, you heard what amounted to a polite clap at a golf tournament.
It was disappointing to see only a couple of thousand people for a game that actually meant a lot. With a win over Fairfield, Loyola would be tied with Iona for first place in the MAAC. And the Greyhounds play the Gaels on Sunday. Meanwhile, a win by the Stags would create a three way tie for second place.
Jimmy Patsos certainly knew how important the game was to the Greyhounds. The head coach of Loyola is one of the most animated coaches I have ever seen (and I've seen Bruiser Flint many times and twenty minutes of Ron Hunter). The best way to describe him is that he always seems anguished, maybe even tortured. Also, he has no qualms in yelling at his players or taking them out on a moment's notice after a bad play.
This trait showed immediately after tipoff. With the Greyhounds on offense, point guard Dylan Cormier expected Robert Olson to be in certain place and passed the ball. Olson went the other way and the ball went out of bounds. Patsos wasted no time benching Olson and giving him quite a tongue lashing. It seemed like for much of the game when a player did something he didn't like, Patsos immediately took the player out of the game. Olson was the recipient of multiple tongue lashings on the night.
As for the start of the game, both teams played sloppily. When the Stags tried to put up a shot, Shane Walker, a 6-foot-10 forward from England swatted it away. The teams struggled to score. Patsos kept shuttling players in and out, desperate for a combination that worked. The Stags led for the first eight-plus minutes until a three by T.J. Williams gave the Greyhounds their first lead at 14-12 with about eleven minutes left.
The rest of the half the teams traded the lead back and forth. Finally, one of the teams made a run. Fairfield scored ten of the last twelve points in the first half. Keith Matthews had six of those point and the Stags entered the locker room up 35-29 at halftime.
Fairfield picked up right where they left off at the start of the second half. The Stags outscored the Greyhounds 10-1 in the first three-plus minutes. The score was 45-30 Fairfield and Loyola needed to find a way to get back in the game.
Patsos seemed to be on the verge of a meltdown as he tried to get his team to do the little things to get back in the game. At one point he yelled "GRAB THE BALL" several times after his team couldn't corral a loose ball. During a timeout, he repeatedly screamed "TAKE A CHARGE" while his players were on the bench. Later on there was one point where he yelled at everyone on his team, the team managers, the Greyhounds' fans in the first row, anyone within range. He was trying to get his team and fans riled up.
It worked. Little by little, Loyola chipped away at Fairfield's lead. Erik Etherly started getting layups inside. Patsos' whipping boy, Olson, started drilling jumpers from the outside. Loyola cut the lead to three, 50-47 with eight and half minutes left. But Fairfield responded by scoring eight of the next ten points and pulled back out to a 58-49 lead with a little less than six minutes left.
By now, the fans were fully into the game. Both teams' faithful had something in common, a complete dislike for the officiating on the night. I can honestly say that the officials were consistent...consistently bad for both teams. Where I was sitting, there was a mix of Loyola and Fairfield fans, going back and forth with each other on foul calls.
Meanwhile, the Greyhounds refused to go away. Again Etherly and Justin Drummond's inside work resulted in points. Then with the Stags up seven, 62-55 with two minutes left, Olson took over. He scored the next seven points on jumpers, the last being a three-point jumper. The Greyhounds had tied the game at 62 with 1:20 left. The Loyola fans were ecstatic. The Fairfield fans were furious at the referees.
The officials would play a major part down the stretch. Fairfield's Desmond Wade was fouled and he hit one of two free throws to put Fairfield up one, 63-62. But in the next possession, Cormier got fouled. He hit his two free throws to put Loyola up one, 64-63 with exactly one minute left.
Fairfield had two chances at a basket on their next possession, but Walker grabbed a rebound and was fouled. He made one of two free throws and the Greyhounds were up 65-63 with twenty six seconds left. Again, Fairfield had an opportunity to tie or take the lead, but Rakim Sanders missed a shot. Again Loyola got the rebound and was fouled. Anthony Winbush made one of two free throws, the second of which it almost seemed like he purposely missed. The Stags had one last chance to tie, but Sean Crawford's three pointer missed. The Greyhounds won 66-63.
For the second night in a row, I witnessed a team comeback from a substantial double digit deficit in the second half in a MAAC Conference game. Loyola had rallied from fifteen points down to win the contest. The Greyhounds were now tied with Iona for first place in the MAAC. Sunday's game at the Hynes Center is now for sole possession of first place in the MAAC.
No one was happier with the result than Patsos. After the teams shook hands, the Greyhounds came back to their side of the court. Patsos turned to the Loyola fans and started pumping his fist repeatedly. Then he reached up and pulled his green tie off and threw it towards the direction of the Loyola fans, but it didn't make it that far. He picked it up and proceeded to go to the first row of fans and tied it around a Greyhounds' fan's neck and then gave the fan a hug.
I had never seen a coach show such emotion at the end of a regular season game. Patsos with all his yelling, screaming and cajoling had somehow willed his players to not only come back but win the game as well. He may be absolutely nuts, but he's incredibly fun to watch. And Patsos got a huge win last night. He deserved to celebrate with the fans. Too bad it wasn't in a smaller, more appropriate venue.
I have a suggestion for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference - make your slogan "In the MAAC, It's Never Over Till It's Over." The last two nights have truly shown me that.