The cradle of basketball played host to the MAAC conference tournament, although no one in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts seemed to know. As my ten year-old son Ian and I walked around outside the arena, we couldn't find a place for a cup of coffee or a chocolate shake. The weather was warm, and we could sense our winter spent together in gyms was close to the end.
Inside the Mass Mutual Center mighty Iona, the 1 seed and a mid-major many picked to make splash in the NCAA tournament, faced the 4 seed Fairfield, surviving an inconsistent season, an injury to its best perimeter shooter, and a close game the day before against Rider.
The first half was a shootout from the opening tip. Iona's big man Mike Glover, the hardest working post presence in the league, traded baskets with Fairfield's seven footer Ryan Olander; Scott Machado, leading the nation in assists, traded 3-pointers with the versatile Stag Rakim Sanders.
On the Fairfield sideline, Coach Sydney Johnson with a polite sweep of his hand urged his players to run. Save for the suit, Johnson looks like a young father coaching his child's youth team, all composure and good manners. But his strategy didn't make sense to Ian and me. We knew what it was like to draw the number one seed. We would face the undefeated powerhouse of our town league that week. As coach, I planned to tell my fourth graders to go right at 'em, but I knew this was bravado not strategy. Did Johnson really believe he had the horses to keep the pace that Machado and Momo Jones, orchestrating the highest scoring offense in Division I, would set in a wide open game? Was this bravado or strategy?
But the Stags found points in unlikely places. Colin Nickerson beat Iona's corner trap with a move along the baseline and then hit two three-point shots, a personal 8-point run. Machado answered on the other end with two three-pointers of his own. The Iona guard does not shoot an attractive jump shot, but he is the consummate offensive player. He knows what the youth basketball players on my team forget: you've got to be a shooter if anyone is going to fear you as a passer. So Machado shot it.
As the game heated up, I took furious notes in my tourney program. After Sanders' second of two spinning hoops, matched by a three ball from Iona reserve Rashaad James, I wrote, "Can't keep track!" The teams sped into halftime. An easy lefty layup by Machado gave the Gaels a 42-40 lead.
We went into the concourse. The hot dogs were long, but the buns were crumbly.
The ease with which Iona was scoring gave the feeling that the Gaels were playing with one hand tied behind their backs. Iona fans looked confident.
But as the second half began, we realized other trends too. For one, Fairfield was not in foul trouble. Sanders and Olander began the half playing aggressive defense in the paint. Glover, who was profiled that week in the New York Times, had made several moves around the slower Olander early in the game. Now Olander held his ground, and Glover couldn't shoot the ball over the taller man.
For another, unlikely players were stepping up to help Sanders with the Stags' scoring load. Keith Matthews played weak-side defense on Glover and pitched in with several inside baskets. Iona switched to a zone, with the 6-1 Machado playing at the bottom for a few possessions to try to counter Matthew's quickness in the paint.
The game slowed. "Fairfield is drawing fouls," said Ian.
Desmond Wade, Iona's point guard, dogged Machado, keeping the Iona guard out of the middle where we had seen him all season carve up teams in the second half of games.
Matthews hit the shot that gave Fairfield its first lead of the half, 61-60. There were more fans in the Mass Mutual Center than we had realized, and now they screamed for the Stags. During a loose ball scrum, Fairfield saved possession with a timeout. Iona's Tim Cluess, also a coach cut from gentlemen's cloth, stamped his feet in frustration.
A fan sitting in front of us turned around and said, "Does Iona go?"
We all knew what he meant. Had Iona built up a strong enough record during the season to earn an at large bid to the NCAA's? In other words, could Iona, anointed so early this season as a team of destiny, afford to lose?
The question was surely pre-mature. Eight minutes remained. The law of the top seed would come into play soon. Ian and I both felt the correction was coming.
Momo Jones made lay-ups on consecutive possessions, but Iona was out of sorts. And Fairfield had saved their fouls. Now they challenged Glover on every possession, hacking him if they needed to. The Iona big man missed shot after shot from the foul line. His drawn-out release, the slow uncoiling of his body, was excruciating to watch.
The Stags' Jamel Fields chased a loose ball into the Iona bench. He lay on the floor for several minutes receiving medical attention on his face and shoulder. He arose, and Fairfield staggered into the under four-minute timeout ahead, 72-66.
Two plays defined the last minutes of the game. The first play actually happened twice. Glover hauled in a defensive rebound and, rather than giving the ball to Machado or Jones, charged up the court himself. Both stampedes ended in turnovers.
The second play occurred during a harmless inbound under Fairfield's basket. Machado, set to receive the pass, lashed out with his right arm into the Fairfield defender, who fell backwards. The dead ball foul was an obvious call. As Machado turned and pled with the official, we knew we were witnessing Iona's magnificent season coming to nothing.
In the last minute the Stags twice passed the ball over Iona's desperate full-court press to their center, Olander. The first time, the seven footer slammed it to give Fairfield its 10-point winning margin. The second time he dribbled under the basket and out to the wing, six or seven cautious bounces in a row, more consecutive dribbles than he had probably made all season.
FAIRFIELD 85, IONA 75 03/04/2012
FAIRFIELD 19-13 (12-6) -- L. Rivers 3-12 11-12 18; D. Wade 1-8 4-4 6; R. Sanders 11-17 2-5 26; R. Olander 3-6 4-4 11; C. Nickerson 5-8 1-2 14; M. Barrow 3-3 3-4 9; K. Matthews 6-8 2-4 14; J. Fields 2-2 0-0 5; S. Crawford 0-0 0-0 0; G. Martin 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-52 16-23 85. IONA 25-7 (15-3) -- S. Machado 9-16 2-2 24; M. Glover 5-10 9-18 19; L. Jones 6-11 4-4 16; S. Armand 1-5 0-0 3; R. Dezouvre 2-5 0-0 4; T. Ridley 1-1 2-2 4; K. Smyth 0-1 0-0 0; J. Jenkins 0-0 0-0 0; R. James 2-2 0-0 5. Totals 26-51 17-26 75.
Three-point goals: FAIR 7-14 (R. Sanders 2-3; D. Wade 0-3; R. Olander 1-3; C. Nickerson 3-4; J. Fields 1-1), IONA 6-13 (S. Machado 4-6; K. Smyth 0-1; L. Jones 0-1; S. Armand 1-4; R. James 1-1); Rebounds: FAIR 32 (R. Sanders 12), IONA 17 (M. Glover 8); Assists: FAIR 27 (D. Wade 11), IONA 15 (S. Machado 7); Total Fouls -- FAIR 18, IONA 22; Fouled Out: FAIR-None; IONA-None.