(photo courtesy: Fairfield athletics)

Fairfield 98, Iona 91: A Little Redemption For Marcus Gilbert

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – It’s hard to call Marcus Gilbert unknown, especially in the MAAC, where he was a preseason first-team selection after all.

Maybe underappreciated might be a little closer to the target. Gilbert finished fifth in the MAAC with 16.1 points per game last season, and was praised by opposing coaches for his outstanding ability after almost every game, but made only the MAAC third team last March.

The primary reason isn’t hard to deduce, Gilbert’s Fairfield team finished a putrid 7-24, finishing with a lopsided MAAC Tournament loss that saw them score just 33 points. Yes, them, as in the whole team. It was Fairfield’s second straight seven-win season after the Stags went 19-16 in Gilbert’s freshman season, one that saw him on the MAAC All-Rookie Team.

Gilbert got a little more notice by scoring more than 30 points in back-to-back games (both wins) over UMES and Columbia, but just seven minutes into the MAAC opener at Iona, he went down hard and awkwardly, and could barely put weight on his right leg when he eventually got up. Uh oh. Could his career really end that way?

It didn’t, of course, although the ankle injury did keep him out a couple of weeks. He scored 20 or more in four of his first five games back, then went into a bit of a mini-slump this week, managing just 13 against Saint Peter’s (3-15 FG) and eight at Marist (2-7 FG).

That slide came to an abrupt end Sunday afternoon at Webster Bank Arena as Gilbert hit his first three shots, all three-pointers. Meanwhile, unlike the past couple of seasons, his team has followed his lead, as the Runnin’ Stags led from start to finish in breaking a five-game losing streak to Iona 98-91, pushing them to an even 5-5 in the MAAC (and 11-9 overall). Gilbert is currently third in the MAAC at 19.1 points per game, and – most importantly – his team is winning games.

“I’m really happy for him (Gilbert) because of how much he’s given the program,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “He’s worked so hard individually and he’s been a really good role model for everyone else. He’s a really coachable kid, he’s deserving. I tell these guys all the time if you put enough into the game, you’ll get some back and he’s getting some back right now.”

Gilbert’s 32 points and 10 rebounds were both one off his career highs, as he outdueled former AAU teammate (and fellow Delaware native) A.J. English, who scored 46 points in December as Gilbert limped off the court on crutches.

“I had to make a statement because I haven’t had a lot of good games against them in my career,” Gilbert said. “This was my last game with them, and I wanted to go out with a bang.”

The Stags would like to make a few more bangs in the second half of the MAAC schedule as well. Their new up-tempo style (83 possessions again Sunday) is not only more attractive to watch, it has opened up the floor for Gilbert’s teammates to complement him.

Game on from Bridgeport! #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

What else did we learn Sunday in Bridgeport?:

1) Iona is flawed currently

The Gaels are still 7-3 in MAAC play and a half-game behind Monmouth for the conference lead, but they have played the weakest in-conference schedule thus far (per KenPom). More importantly, they just don’t look like themselves, and part of that is the lack of consistency in the lineup. They were just about getting back to as normal (well, as normal as they’re going to be, more on that below the quote), and then the postgame shenanigans against Monmouth meant they were without Jordan Washington for two games.

Washington seemingly returned with a vengeance Sunday, coming off the bench to match his career-high of 22 points by halftime and finishing with 33 points and 12 rebounds (interestingly, Washington leads the nation in usage and fouls drawn on a team with English and Isaiah Williams). But head coach Tim Cluess sees familiar problems forming at the other end. The Gaels have moved back past Monmouth into the top MAAC spot in offensive efficiency (and managed 1.10 ppp on a night where they looked out of sync for much of it).

But the Gaels (10-9, 7-3) are now sixth and dropping in defensive efficiency. Fairfield finished at 1.18 ppp Sunday, with more than a few open looks and layups in transition. It was 18-2 in the early moments before Iona even got going and it never truly recovered.

“We have a lot of things that are broken right now,” Cluess said. “Again, we bring Wash(ington) back and he looked like he hadn’t played in two weeks. I know we scored a lot, but defensively he gave up as much as he scored. It’s not OK to do it on one end. Unfortunately, right now, with having so many guys out at so many different times with injuries and all that has been tough. I thought we played our best half of defense all season in the first half against Saint Peter’s and now our worst half two days later. Credit to them, I love how they made four or five passes to get the open look. Snap, snap, snap. That’s usually the way we play, but tonight we didn’t, at least in the first half.”

It should be said that joining Gilbert on the preseason All-MAAC squad was sophomore Schadrac Casimir (who grew up not too far from Bridgeport), who is out for the season with a hip injury. Projected starter Kelvin Amayo also left the team, so those two losses certainly don’t help the Iona cause.

Cluess wasn’t as concerned about English, who was invisible in the first half (only attempting three shots) and didn’t score until five minutes into the second half (he did finish with 16) after hitting 13 three-pointers against Fairfield in the first meeting. English, an 87% free throw shooter coming in was 4-10 from the line, and the Gaels finished just 22-37 overall. English, Williams, and Washington combined for 71 of Iona’s 91 points.

“They were keying on him (English) and throwing guys at him a lot, and we talk about other guys have to step up in those situations, and Washington was doing a nice job in the first half,” Cluess said. “But we missed too many foul shots. We make some of those, it’s a different game.”

2) Fairfield may have to be slowed down to be stopped

Which could make them a form of kryptonite for teams like Iona and Monmouth in Albany (both Monmouth and Fairfield are ahead of Iona in adjusted tempo currently). Iona eventually routed Fairfield in the team’s first meeting, but the Stags were off to a good start until Gilbert went down. Monmouth ended up beating Fairfield in their first meeting but trailed by double digits late in the first half.

Teams that have been able to slow Fairfield down as Saint Peter’s (68 possessions) did Tuesday have had the most success. Then again, the Peacocks also have the second-best defense (behind Siena, whom Fairfield suffered its worst MAAC loss against), so it could be a lot of that, too. The Stags are still in the lower half of the MAAC in defensive efficiency and struggle in the paint, as you can see from Washington’s numbers Sunday.

For Fairfield fans, there are more positives than negatives at the moment, though, especially given recent history. The Stags will likely be in the running for a top-five MAAC spot and tournament first-round bye at season’s end.

“Iona’s been a very good team over the last few years, ever since I’ve gotten into the league,” Johnson said. “So for us to re-establish ourselves, we know that we’re making tremendous forward progress, and this is a mark of that.”

3) Hardest working man in show business (Big Apple Buckets version)

I actually had my clothes on ready to go to the Army-Navy game at Madison Square Garden, but made a last minute decision not to attend because modified forecasts were ugly and the fear of Metro North service from New Haven to NYC being shut down meant I could be stranded (which happened three years ago in a blizzard, forcing me to sleep at the Port Authority for an evening and catch a bus back the next day).

As it turned out, the Army-Navy game was cancelled at the last minute because of the travel ban, which indeed would have left me stranded again. However, the Battle of Brooklyn went on, ban or no ban, and former Quinnipiac coach and Fairfield alum Joe DeSantis was on the call for ESPN3 (which I watched while it snowed). Unfortunately, DeSantis – a Connecticut resident – was indeed stuck in NYC for the night. Luckily, he didn’t have to sleep in the bus station, but it wasn’t until today that he got home, however he dutifully was in attendance again in Bridgeport to call this game.

So, as someone who been through more than a few crazy snowstorms to cover mid-major hoops in the last few seasons, I salute you, Mr. DeSantis.

By the way, only one player in Fairfield history has had two back-to-back 30-point games in the same season, a mark Gilbert can now match with 30 or more Friday against Canisius. And that is Joe DeSantis, who happens to be a Fairfield playing legend as well.

Good night from Bridgeport. Fastest post-game ever. Some football game or something. #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on

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