Saint Peter’s 77, Fairfield 71: Check Your MAAC Radar, Please

FAIRFIELD, Conn. – With Monmouth and Iona doing their thing, Saint Peter’s has been able to glide under the MAAC radar for most of the season. In fact, while Monmouth was beating Notre Dame and USC in Orlando (and scaring Dayton), the Peacocks were losing four straight, including to Lafayette, Hartford, and Fairleigh Dickinson, none of which can be mistaken for a national power.

But, although they haven’t been heard or seen by most, the Saint Peter’s Express has been registering on the MAAC screen. That approaching red dot and accompanying beep you heard Tuesday night was the Peacocks registering another conference win, this one 77-71 at Fairfield’s Alumni Hall. Saint Peter’s is now a game ahead of Iona and tied with Monmouth atop the conference at 6-1, and with a showdown at Jordan Washington-less Iona looming Friday night, the MAAC may have to deal with the Peacocks sooner rather than later.

“We’re really happy to be where we are, and we’re playing well, but we’re not putting ourselves in a Monmouth or Iona category yet,” Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne said. “Iona is just the next game, and they’re an extremely talented team, but anybody can be beaten on any given night, so we’ll see what happens.”

The Peacocks (8-8, 6-1) have been led of late by guards Trevis Wyche and Antwon Portley, who play completely different styles and come from opposite sides of the country. Wyche, now a junior veteran, is a local kid who battled inconsistency in his first two seasons in Jersey City, but appears to have figured it out by coming off the bench. Wyche is averaging 18.5 points per game in his last four, leads the MAAC in assist rate (39.0%), and is seventh in two-point shooting (57.9%), which is incredible for a 6’ guard. Tuesday, he finished with 20 points on 6-9 shooting (and 8-9 from the free throw line).

“It’s just confidence,” Wyche said. “I’m just feeling confident right now and I thank Coach (Dunne) for giving me the confidence to make plays and go out there and play my game.”

Portley is one of the finds of the season, coming to Saint Peter’s from Lancaster, Texas and able to light up opposing defenses. He is tall for a guard (6’4”) and was able to rise up above even tall Fairfield guards to put up 13 points in the game’s first eight minutes and 19 in the first half. He finished with “only” 23, but he has scored double digits in every MAAC game, including 25 at Rider, and gives the Peacocks an offensive weapon they sorely needed.

Even with those two, Saint Peter’s has gotten by on the defensive end. The Peacocks are currently 94th nationally in efficiency, and trail only Siena in the MAAC. Fairfield was able to put up 1.06 points per possession Tuesday (in a much slower game than they wanted), but that was a little misleading. The Stags (9-9, 3-5) were only 4-25 from the field in the second half before making six field goals in the final three minutes in a desperate comeback attempt.

“I just think we’re learning how to focus in on gameplan, there’s nothing magical for us,” Dunne said. “We don’t try to trick anybody, we kind of are who we are.”

Despite cold shooting and Portley on fire, Fairfield was able to climb back from an early 10-point deficit (which would turn out to be the game’s largest) to grab a 36-33 halftime lead behind a couple of steals and run-outs.

But the Peacocks committed just five turnovers after halftime, and Fairfield’s ice cold shooting eventually allowed Saint Peter’s to put the game away, its third straight. Saint Peter’s has already won at Rider, Marist, and Canisius as well.

“Anytime you can win on the road, especially against a team with that much energy and they shoot the ball so well, “Dunne said. “Fortunately for us, a couple of those threes rimmed out in the second half. I thought our team played at a nice pace and shared the ball really well. We’re getting to a point where we don’t care who scores, we just take what the defense gives us.”

What else did we learn at Alumni Hall?:

1) Fairfield keeping it positive

Obviously the Stags are ahead of the past of the last couple of years, but they face a huge stretch coming up, which begins at Marist on Friday and has them hosting Iona Sunday (back in Bridgeport). Johnson attributed most of their struggles Tuesday to just being able to hit shots. Marcus Gilbert, especially, had a tough night, shooting just 3-15 (13 points), while Tyler Nelson was 2-11 (freshman Jonathan Kasibabu did have an excellent game with 16 points and 10 rebounds).

“I want to tip my hat to them, and they’re a very good defensive team, but when we came in at halftime, we liked what we were doing and we said more of the same,” Johnson said. “You like at 9-for-30 (from three), and if it’s 13-for-30, it’s a different ballgame. I think we have a good team, I like what I saw. Those shots just didn’t fall and that certainly affected what we were trying to do.”

2) Turning the offense on

Saint Peter’s is still just 257th nationally in offensive efficiency, but it is up to third in MAAC play (behind only Iona and Monmouth) in MAAC play, even though they are just 10th in adjusted tempo (Niagara is last), they are also third in eFG% (52.0%), a lot of that attributed to Wyche and Portley, of course.

“He’s (Wyche) been playing at an all-MAAC level lately, he really has,” Dunne said. “The great thing about Trevis is he’s happy to come off the bench and he’d be just as happy with 12 assists and no points, that’s just the kind of kid he is.”

Said Wyche: “It’s good to win, but we have a long season ahead of us, and we just have to continue to grow and get better and better each day. Hopefully, by the end of the season, we’ll be playing our best basketball and hopefully win the ship.”

3) Goodbye Alumni Hall

This was the third and final game at Alumni Hall for Fairfield this season, and it remains to be seen if and when the Stags come back. The only other MAAC game the Stags have played in the last decade in Fairfield was against Manhattan (a loss) three years ago in a game that was postponed due to a blizzard. The final attendance was a near capacity 2,113, with the student section nearly full, so hopefully there will be future MAAC games there, even if it is most definitely old-school (with drafts on cold nights and all).

“I love playing at Alumni Hall, I think it’s a great home-court advantage,” Johnson said. “Our fans are so positive and supportive on campus and our guys really love the environment here.”

Both Fairfield and Saint Peter’s are currently at .500 and the all-time series between the two is now tied 55-55. They meet again on the final day of the MAAC regular season, Feb. 27, in Jersey City.