"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."― Friedrich Nietzsche
Game #9-285: Niagara Purple Eagles at Fairfield StagsJanuary 13, 2013 1:00 pm
Arena at Harbor Yard
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. - It's much easier to ridicule than to praise, especially from the distance of a keyboard length away. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, the I-phone is likely infinitely more capable of superficially wounding someone than its archaic predecessors.
I'm as guilty as you are of putting needlessly mistimed and unfunny jokes on Twitter, usually at the expense of someone or something. Alright, probably much more guilty. After all, isn't that what social media is for?
And I figured Sunday afternoon would be just another couple of hours of me and my best black curtain
jokes as Fairfield took on Niagara. I had a few good ones lined up on the ride over. Doozies, even.
But, walking to the arena, there was a strange buzz, or to rephrase, it was strange that there was a buzz, especially a good 45 minutes before tipoff, and a massive line at the ticket window. When I got to the front, I finally noticed why:
Fairfield, which had only played one home game since the Newtown tragedy a month ago Monday
, decided to put its giant building to good use and announced that any resident of Newtown will receive free admission
to any Fairfield athletic event for the rest of the school year.
The Niagara game being the first since the announcement, there were some other special perks, such as the Newtown kids getting to sit in the old student section behind the basket (meaning only one curtain was necessary instead of two like in the first two games I had attended in Bridgeport). The first sound you heard upon entering was loud cheering, and I turned the corner, the source immediately became clear.
Newtown cheerleaders with specially made Fairfield t-shirts as far as the eye can see.
My original seat was directly next
to all the Newtown folk, which was enough to lighten even the darkest of hearts like mine.
There was, however, a game to be played, and a fairly large one in the MAAC as Niagara came in a somewhat surprising 4-1, although they did return virtually everyone from last season's squad that improved steadily as the year progressed. Of course,I didn't have high hopes after seeing them collapse against an inferior Brown squad
just five days prior, but they did beat Saint Peter's handily on Friday. A Purple Eagles victory would push them three full games clear of defending MAAC finalist Fairfield in the conference standings.
Fairfield jumped out to an eight-point lead early as Niagara had some extremely questionable decision-making and shot selection combined with Derek Needham hitting a couple of superhoops (after a miserable offensive performance in an overtime loss to Loyola less than 48 hours earlier).
But Needham wouldn't get another field goal on the afternoon, and although Niagara can make you cringe when trying to run a half-court offense, you couldn't question its heart or its depth on Sunday. Antoine Mason, genetics playing a large part, is an extremely strong young man, and - on several occasions - tried to just bull his way to the basket, putting the referees in a difficult spot. He managed to avoid offensive fouls and got himself to the free throw line plenty. At one point, Mason scored 11 straight points himself, and the Purple Eagles - seeming to get contributions from everyone - led 37-33 at the half.
T.J. Cline (more on him in a moment) scored five straight points midway through the second half to give Niagara a six-point advantage, but for most of the time it was a one-possession game. The Fairfield students and cheerleaders that were in attendance were doing their best to try to educate the Newtown youngsters on how to distract free throw shooters and making excessive noise when the shot clock was running down for the other team, but it was a slow process.
Fairfield led 60-59 with 3:30 left when Mason picked Desmond Wade's pocket and floated a pass ahead to Juan'ya Green for a go-ahead layup. It was a strange game for Green, Niagara's leading scorer, who finished with only five points, but didn't appear to be outwardly frustrated in the contest, nor did he look to force too many shots when being keyed on by Fairfield.
The Stags would get only one field goal in the final 7:05, and it was the freshman Cline again who appeared to finish them off, putting back a Green miss with 55.2 seconds left to put Niagara up 65-62.
Still, Fairfield got out of jail when Wade - after a furious sequence that included two offensive rebounds - was fouled on a superhoop with 2.4 seconds left. Wade missed the second, then appeared to hit the third against his coaches' wishes to cut the lead to 65-64. Mason was immediately fouled on the inbound pass and made both free throws (in what I thought was a strategic fail with Fairfield out of timeouts, why give them a chance to inbound?). Wade's half-court heave wasn't close and that was that, Niagara was 5-1 in the MAAC.
The Purple Eagles were outrebounded 45-27, but forced 16 turnovers. Mason, despite going just 2-for-13 from the field, finished with 17 points (12-of-12 from the line) and four steals.
Cline, who I wondered why coach Joe Mihalich even had on the court the first time I saw them against Iona, has shown why I have no expertise in evaluating basketball players, by becoming a key cog in the recent Niagara resurgence.
I happened to walk out behind Cline's family, who I figured must have made the trip in from Texas for the weekend to visit New York. How did I know they were Cline's family? Well, his younger brother was holding this.
I didn't realize until after the fact that Cline's mom is actually a ringer, Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman-Cline. Well, how about that?
In a true Mid-majority media guide description, Cline's bio mentions that "his parents met while they were both playing for the Washington Generals". Awesome.
I dreaded heading out to the full parking lot, but it turned out - with the larger crowd - they actually paid a policeman to direct traffic, so I was out rather quickly.
On the way home, I tuned in to the Fairfield postgame with play-by-play man Bob Huessler, one of the nicest guys (in my humble opinion) in the business. Huessler lives near New Haven, and happened to be sitting near us on the train ride home from New York City after a Syracuse-St. John's game three years ago.
Huessler (who was an announcer at Milford Jai-Alai back in my younger days as well before it closed down) also works at WFAN in New York, and although he's not a top anchor, it makes him a pseudo-celebrity. He easily could have feigned important work or sleep or ignorance when our group started peppering him with sports-related questions he probably answered several times each day.
But he didn't. For the better part of the 90-minute trip home, he discussed various things about his career (including the Jai Alai).
Huessler lamented Fairfield's offensive woes and the work the Stags now needed to do to get back near the top of the MAAC standings. But he concluded by mentioning that winning and losing was secondary to the smiles on the faces of the kids from Newtown, and that he hoped to see more smiles at future home games the rest of the season.
Huessler knows a little bit about tough times. Two years ago this week (and a year after that conversation with me and my friends), Huessler's wife died after a long illness. She was just 53.
In perhaps my favorite quote of the season, an 11-year-old from Newtown said of his experience in the Connecticut Post, "I actually forgot about this, but then when I woke up this morning I remembered, and then I was, like, 'Yes!'
Smiles are never a bad thing.
NIAGARA 67, at FAIRFIELD 64
NIAGARA 9-8 (5-1) -- J. Green 2-9 1-2 5; A. Mason 2-13 12-12 17; M. Jordan 1-4 0-2 3; A. Tanksley 5-11 0-1 10; D. White 2-6 1-1 5; T. Cline 5-6 0-0 12; M. Lemmons 1-1 4-4 6; T. McCall 2-4 0-0 4; J. Thomas 2-2 1-1 5. Totals 22-56 19-23 67.
FAIRFIELD 10-8 (2-4) -- M. Barrow 4-7 2-2 10; D. Needham 2-7 4-6 10; J. Jenkins 5-15 5-7 16; C. Nickerson 0-1 0-0 0; A. Sidibe 1-3 5-6 7; D. Wade 2-6 3-5 7; K. Matthews 1-3 1-4 3; M. Gilbert 3-4 0-0 8; J. Mikulic 1-2 1-2 3; C. Johnson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-49 21-32 64.
Three-point goals: NIAG 4-12 (M. Jordan 1-2; A. Mason 1-3; J. Green 0-4; A. Tanksley 0-1; T. Cline 2-2), FAIR 5-18 (D. Wade 0-3; D. Needham 2-6; M. Gilbert 2-3; J. Jenkins 1-5; J. Mikulic 0-1); Rebounds: NIAG 27 (J. Green 6), FAIR 38 (M. Barrow 9); Assists: NIAG 8 (M. Jordan 3), FAIR 8 (M. Barrow 3); Total Fouls -- NIAG 21, FAIR 21; Fouled Out: NIAG-None; FAIR-None.
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