And so here came the Mercer Bears from Georgia, of the Atlantic Sun Conference, to play Fairfield in the semi-finals of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament. As fans in the northeast - followers of the MAAC, the NEC, the Patriot - we didn't know anything about Mercer, and the shot clock violation they committed on their first possession didn't impress us much. I thought maybe I shouldn't have dragged my 10 year-old son Ian away from his fantasy basketball on the Wii. But in the next couple of minutes Bud Thomas, Langston Hall, and Jakob Gollon each made triples after patiently working against Fairfield's man-to-man defense.
At the under-16:00 timeout, the contours of the game were clear. Mercer was big, but they didn't want to play a fast-pace. They ran offensive sets through the high post. Everyone could shoot.
Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson, on the other hand, was forced after thirty-six games to reinvent his rotation. Desmond Wade had broken his hand in the quarterfinal round against Robert Morris and would not play tonight. He joined his backcourt mate Derek Needham on the Stags' bench. Both wore sweaters. (Needham's was more stylish - a button-up with muted stripes - as he had several games' experience of how to dress when not playing. Wade simply wore dark blue.)
Johnson adjusted for early fouls on Colin Nickerson, his one scoring guard, by playing rarely used Gary Martin. Johnson also loosened the reins on Rakim Sanders, needing his senior leader to be a playmaker and not just a scorer. There were strange match-ups all over the floor as Fairfield's improvised lineup, often four forwards and a tall guard, was still smaller than Mercer's.
Ian watched the Stags' Maurice Barrow who, given the lineup alterations, was playing out of position on the perimeter while still fulfilling his responsibility as Fairfield's roughest, toughest hombre in the paint. "He's like Sanders," said Ian. "He's not really tall, but he's strong. So he can do a lot." I gave Ian silent praise for his insight.
Meanwhile, coming out of the under-8:00 timeout, the Bears' Monty Brown, a 6-11 sophomore, hit a shot over the Stags' seven-footer Ryan Olander to give Mercer a 25-12 lead.
When Olander picked up his second foul with five minutes left in the half, Fairfield switched to a zone. Nickerson returned to the game, his speed igniting the Stag offense. Nobody looks as good on the move with the ball as Nickerson; he's springy and light, and when he goes to the basket he gets off the floor a half step before anyone expects. He drove into the lane and found Keith Matthews for an easy basket. Matthews then blocked a shot and made a long pass to Martin for a lay-up.
The spurt meant the Stags were down only five points, 30-25, at the half. The Fairfield fans around us weren't sure what to think. "Some good stuff and some not-so-good stuff," said one. As good an analysis as any.
On the far baseline, Fairfield's president, Fr. von Arx, worked the student section. The Fairfield mascot walked in step behind him, aping the president's waves and handshakes. Kids walked around the upper reaches of the arena in small groups. Ian and I sat without talking, waiting for the action which pulled us together to resume. The cheerleaders came on the floor and ran through their routines. I was unprepared for that sudden moment of loneliness that comes with every halftime.
Mercer's Gollon started the second half catching a pass in perfect shooting position on the wing. He hit the three pointer with the nonchalance of playing h-o-r-s-e in an empty gym. As he trotted back on defense, he was close enough to us that we could almost make out the tattoo on his right arm. It looked like it read "Joy."
Fairfield, on the other hand, relied on individual effort and the energy of its fans to speed the game up. Barrow stole the ball on the perimeter and went in for a solo dunk. An Olander three pointer from straightaway, his first make in three attempts from the same spot, brought Fairfield within a point, 48-47.
Surely this was the basket that would trigger the run to put Fairfield in control. The energy in the building soared.
But Mercer answered. A spot-up three point jump shot from Thomas became a four-point play when Nickerson closed out too late and too hard.
Nickerson ran the break, beating Mercer's guards to the basket for a three-point play. Later, Sanders caught a pass, hopped, and spun to the hoop for an old-fashioned finger roll. Mercer coach Bob Hoffman screamed for a travel call.
Fairfield, using only seven players in its rotation, extended its defense. Coach Johnson knew that pressure defense by his quicker, more physical players was the formula to win the game. But did his players have enough fouls left, let alone enough energy, to pull it off? At the under-8:00 timeout, behind 52-49, we could see him mouth the words "stop fouling" to his team.
Hoffman responded by going deeper into his bench, employing eleven of his Bears in the second half. All eleven scored. The game teetered at a three to six point differential in Mercer's favor. Bears' guard Justin Cecil made a three, his feet barely leaving the floor on the release. The Stags' Matthews, playing taller and longer than his 6-5 frame on both backboards, converted three offensive rebounds into points. "Taking out the garbage!" I said to Ian, referring to how we talk about lunch-pail offense on his youth league team.
Again, Mercer answered. A high pick created a mismatch for Thomas against Olander leading to an uncontested basket.
In the final minutes, with Mercer leading 62-56, the Bear defense overplayed Sanders and Nickerson. Fairfield ran two offensive possessions to Olander in the post. The big senior took two wayward shots. A drive and basket by Langston Hall, a rare individual move, gave Mercer a seven point lead. In the final possession that mattered Paul Larsen, Coach Hoffman's eleventh man, corralled the defensive rebound.
Ten year-olds experience closure in their own way. In December, after a game in which Holy Cross - our team - gave up a twenty point second half lead at Columbia, Ian vowed with tears in his eyes that he would never watch Holy Cross again. Tonight, he was simply anxious to leave the gym.
We went back out into Saturday night.
"Dad," he said as we walked along Loyola Avenue, "I am going to be like those guys on Mercer who would get pushed but then keep playing. Because they push a lot in my league, too.
"I am going to be tougher."
A car full of Fairfield students rolled up beside us. "How did we do?" asked someone in the passenger seat.
I didn't want to tell him. It was privileged information - shared between Ian and me and the people in our section and the couple of thousand who had crammed the hall. But Ian and I had only borrowed Fairfield, and now we had to give it back.
"Where were you?" I said. "You lost."
MERCER 64, at FAIRFIELD 59 03/24/2012
MERCER 26-11 (13-5) -- J. Gollon 2-3 0-0 6; L. Hall 2-9 2-2 7; B. Thomas 4-6 1-2 13; T. Smith 4-12 3-4 12; D. Coursey 2-5 0-0 4; J. Cecil 2-7 0-0 6; M. Brown 5-5 0-0 10; C. Smith 1-2 0-0 2; P. Larsen 1-2 0-0 2; T. Hallice 0-0 2-2 2; K. Canevari 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-51 8-10 64. FAIRFIELD 22-15 (12-6) -- K. Matthews 6-11 2-4 14; M. Barrow 4-9 4-5 12; R. Sanders 5-10 5-6 16; C. Nickerson 1-5 3-3 5; R. Olander 2-7 0-0 5; J. Fields 1-7 2-2 5; G. Martin 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 20-53 16-20 59.
Three-point goals: MERC 10-20 (J. Cecil 2-6; J. Gollon 2-3; T. Smith 1-2; B. Thomas 4-4; L. Hall 1-5), FAIR 3-16 (R. Sanders 1-3; R. Olander 1-4; C. Nickerson 0-2; G. Martin 0-2; J. Fields 1-4; K. Matthews 0-1); Rebounds: MERC 32 (J. Gollon 6), FAIR 30 (C. Nickerson 8); Assists: MERC 16 (L. Hall 8), FAIR 10 (R. Sanders 3); Total Fouls -- MERC 18, FAIR 16; Fouled Out: MERC-None; FAIR-None.