SPRINGFIELD, Mass. - When last we saw Fairfield, they were laying eggs at Marist to close the regular season
, lacking any sort of flow, confidence, momentum, whatever term for intangibles you wanted to come up with.
Forced to play on the first night of the MAAC Tournament as the seventh-seed in front of virtually no one, my mind tried to spin it into a positive. Well, the Stags can get some much-needed confidence against lowly and last-seeded Saint Peter's. After all, they had crushed the Peacocks twice in the regular season and Saint Peter's hadn't beaten a MAAC team off their campus in 13 months.
And the bigger thing was, Fairfield is not a bad basketball team. Well, maybe a bad offensive squad. But I had seen them play with the best the MAAC had to offer (as had the Black Curtain surely), but how to get them back to that level? Time, obviously, was not on their side. The next loss would be their last.
For most of the first half, my confidence hypothesis appeared to be accurate. Senior Derek Needham - who was just 3-for-18 from the field in his last two games, both Stags losses - had five points in the first three minutes and Fairfield led by double digits, 21-11, midway through the first half. But in the span of the next nine minutes, the Stags would get only one field goal, no one wanted to shoot, and you could almost feel the lack of conviction from the stands.
It was the opposite for the Peacocks, who actually fought back to take the lead briefly before a Needham #superhoop
gave the Stags a 27-26 a still uncomfortable lead at the break.
Seniors Needham and Colin Nickerson were both playing well for Fairfield, but Saint Peter's had seniors as well. Yvon Raymond and Darius Conley were both on the floor two years ago when the Peacocks shocked host and top-seeded Fairfield in the MAAC semifinals and went on to win the tournament and go to the NCAAs.
Then two last-place finishes followed.But as I said in the first MAAC recap
, the conference tournament gives you one more chance, one last opportunity to put the past behind you on a level playing field. And if they didn't have any belief coming in (or midway through the first half), when Swedish freshman Elias Desport scored four straight points and Desi Washington followed with a #superhoop, Saint Peter's was leading 44-37 with 11:30 left, and hopping around like they owned the place.
Because, in that moment, they did. Even if they were the only team Friday without a band, and I could find only two people wearing Saint Peter's attire in the crowd.
We know it always ends in a loss for the players, but sometimes we forget that also applies to the students as well. Those in the band and the managers have just as much invested in the team's success at this time of the year, everyone wants to get to the promised land, the NCAA Tournament and take a journey to God knows where and get yourself on national television so your family and friends can DVR it and show it to people for years to come. If you're really fortunate, your team pulls the shocker and you get to take part in the celebration that will be remembers in NCAA annals forever.
If you've followed all season, you know that Fairfield is home to our favorite Title-R complaint cheerleading captain, senior Taylor Wilkes
. As the Stags stumbled and bumbled, Taylor was getting mad. The squad is supposed to sit stoically most of the time on the baseline, but you could see Taylor smashing his hand on the court when the Stags missed another shot or had another dreadful offensive series, and her arm flew up in disgust ever so slightly every time Saint Peter's scored.
She didn't want her career to end on the first Friday. Hell, the MAAC Fan Fest wouldn't even be open until Saturday morning.
Luckily, classmates Needham and Colin Nickerson got the message. And they were rather fortunate they were facing a poor Saint Peter's team on this night. Needham had five straight points and when Maurice Barrow scored on a putback with 7:30 left, the game was tied at 44. Fairfield's offense still left plenty to desire, but after Washington's #superhoop, Saint Peter's would score only three points the rest of the way.
It was still 46 all with less than two minutes left, before Amadou Sidibe made two free throws and eventually finished off a third-chance opportunity (kept alive by Nickerson) to finally give them some breathing room.
It was tough for Saint Peter's and coach John Dunne, his team battled extremely well, but - in expert statistical analysis Ken Pomeroy would be proud of - they just weren't very good.
As the clock wound down, Conley fouled out, walked to the bench and put his head in a towel. After missing a #superhoop
late, Raymond couldn't control himself, pounding the scorer's table with an open hand before sinking into a crouch on the court, both palms slapping the court in disgust.
As the final buzzer sounded, both regained their composure, Conley hugging every one of his teammates before going through the final hand-shake line.
Meanwhile, Wilkes and her fellow Fairfield cheerleading captains mimicked their team. There was no celebration, it was near midnight, and they would be back in a few hours to take on second-seeded Rider (another team they had beaten twice in the regular season).
You can't really say the Stags gained confidence that will propel them to a magical run the next three days and an improbable MAAC championship.
But they had survived. Long enough to see the Fan Fest anyway.