I went with my ten-year old son Ian to Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, CT where Fairfield hosted Iona. The guest Gaels, at 7-2 in the MAAC, were tied for the conference lead but looking a little less fearsome as they came off a loss to Siena. The host Stags, at 5-3, had won two in a row after early conference difficulties. Tonight we would know if they had righted their ship.
We left the car on Broad St. and walked under the I-95 bridge. Ian asked me, "You're going to root for Fairfield, right? They are the underdogs, and we want to see a good game." I told him yes. He said, "Okay. I will too. But I want Iona to win." He ran ahead along the Bridgeport Police Department parking barricades.
Fairfield did not send their seven-footer Ryan Olander to midcourt for the opening tip. Instead, 6'5" Rakim Sanders stepped into the circle and then conceded the official's toss to the Gaels' Mike Glover. No matter. Neither team scored for several possessions. Iona came out in a zone defense which would collapse around Sanders, the Stag's leading scorer, for nearly the entire game. Fairfield played man.
Early on, Iona's players looked compelled to shoot, as if catching a pass from their star guard Scott Machado, nation's assist leader, came with a responsibility to jack one up. Meanwhile, Fairfield passed the ball over the perimeter of Iona's 2-3. Olander received those passes instead of Sanders, and the big man's flips and turn-around jumpers were mostly off the mark. The Stags' best shots came when they outran the Gaels to the offensive end.
With twin seven-footers, a freshman and a senior, Fairfield's roster appears big in the game program. But coach Sidney Johnson doesn't play the freshman. When Olander goes to the bench, which he did at the five-minute mark of the first half with his third foul, no one in the Stags' lineup is taller than 6'5".
Olander's departure opened up the paint. Iona's Taj Ridley scored after an offensive rebound to give Iona a ten point lead. Iona extended its zone, chasing Fairfield shooters further and further toward the sidelines, including one keystone cops routine where Glover and Momo Jones ended up in a heap on the end line after colliding in midair to contest a Colin Nickerson jumper.
Iona's effort paid off. The Gaels hit halftime with a 34-20 lead. Ian and I hit the ice cream stand on the concourse. When we returned, a couple of Fairfield fans in our section were reading a newspaper, seething silently.
The second half opened cautiously. After only fourteen seconds Olander picked up his third foul, but Coach Johnson, on one knee in front of the scorer's table, his spotless high tops (worn in solidarity for Coaches with Cancer) showing under his suit pants, left him in the game. Neither team could put together back-to-back successful offensive possessions.
Ian's ice cream was too frozen for the plastic spoon to penetrate. He put the cup between his thighs to thaw it.
Here, the chess match between Johnson and Iona coach Tim Cluess began, earlier than expected. Sid (as the shirts in the Fairfield student second refer to him) went with a small team, subbing out Olander. Cluess went smaller - and faster. And stronger. As the Fairfield alum sitting behind us said, Machado is SO DAMN PHYSICAL. He abuses his defender the way a big halfback does an opposition's backfield. After a pileup at midcourt led to a double technical, Iona led 50-33.
Just as I was about to ask for a section of the newspaper, Rakim Sanders awoke.
Sanders is only 6'5" but has NBA shoulders. Although he gets most of his shots moving toward the hoop, he is not a leaper. He has a propensity to foul - sometimes meaninglessly: he was the one who earned Fairfield's half of the double technical - and to fall. He can't always stop his big frame once he gets it moving, as if his feet are too small. (Note: Fairfield's program does not include shoe sizes.) But he works hard on offense and is deadly accurate inside ten feet when he can square his shoulders to the rim.
As the ice cream thawed enough for Ian and I to share the spoon, Sanders had a four point possession - making one of two from the foul line and then a traditional three point play after the Stags had gathered the rebound. On the next possession Olander caught the ball deep in the zone, turned, missed a layup, but was fouled. The fans to our left were in the aisles, needing to vent, running circles with their heads in their hands. How could the big fella have missed?
At the 6:00 minute mark, Fairfield had hauled themselves inside ten points, 56-48. And they kept coming. A successful Olander three-point play, driving lay-ups from Derek Needham and Sanders (who would finish with 24 points), and a Maurice Barrow basket on a mismatch against Iona's Kyle Smyth brought Fairfield to 61-57.
I turned to Ian to ask why, oh why, do the Stags play here, in this minor league hockey arena, a few thousand seats and one ominous black curtain too big for their purposes? The roof would have been coming off Alumni Hall right now if we were squeezed into the campus gym. Here, the student section was off somewhere behind the hockey boards on the far end, useless to the effort.
It may not have mattered. Iona is the top team in the MAAC, and they have the second-best scoring offense (behind North Carolina) for a reason. Momo Jones hit a tough rainbow jumper from the foul line for two of his team high 20 points, and Machado continued relentlessly to beat any defender, finding space in the lane where Fairfield was too slow and too small. Even though a Desmond Wade three ball had Fairfield within four again, 66-62, there was never enough energy in the building for the Stags to steal it. The final was 71-62.
As we walked past the barricades back under the bridge, Ian said, "I knew Iona had it. I knew they had it when it was 14-7."
IONA 71, at FAIRFIELD 62 01/27/2012
IONA 16-5 (8-2) -- S. Machado 7-13 4-6 18; L. Jones 7-14 4-4 20; M. Glover 5-8 3-4 13; J. Jenkins 2-4 0-0 5; R. Dezouvre 0-4 0-1 0; K. Smyth 1-1 0-0 2; R. James 3-5 0-0 6; T. Ridley 3-5 1-2 7; S. Armand 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 28-56 12-17 71. FAIRFIELD 10-10 (5-4) -- D. Wade 2-7 0-0 6; R. Sanders 10-19 4-5 24; D. Needham 4-12 1-1 11; M. Barrow 4-5 1-2 9; R. Olander 2-10 3-4 7; S. Crawford 1-5 0-0 3; C. Nickerson 1-4 0-0 2; K. Matthews 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-63 9-12 62.
Three-point goals: IONA 3-10 (S. Machado 0-1; J. Jenkins 1-2; L. Jones 2-4; S. Armand 0-1; T. Ridley 0-1; R. James 0-1), FAIR 5-21 (R. Sanders 0-3; D. Wade 2-4; S. Crawford 1-4; R. Olander 0-2; D. Needham 2-7; C. Nickerson 0-1); Rebounds: IONA 34 (M. Glover 11), FAIR 33 (R. Sanders 8); Assists: IONA 9 (S. Machado 5), FAIR 14 (D. Needham 4); Total Fouls -- IONA 14, FAIR 19; Fouled Out: IONA-None; FAIR-None.