(photo courtesy: Fairfield athletics)

Fairfield 76, Siena 69: Runnin’ Stags Run All The Way To Bye

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. –  Let’s be honest, we all thought the Runnin’ Stags thing was just a clever gimmick for Sydney Johnson and Fairfield, right? Coming off 7-25 and 7-24 campaigns, Fairfield again started 0-3 and then struggled to beat then fellow-struggler Sacred Heart in overtime.

That game went 82 possessions, but it was seen more as Sacred Heart’s doing than Fairfield’s, but the 89-possession pummeling of Maryland-Eastern Shore that followed was an eye opener, and the Runnin’ Stags dragged 75 trips out of a pretty good Columbia team and beat them in doing it. The real turning point from ha-ha to hmmm came right after Christmas when Fairfield ran current Patriot League leader Bucknell out of Sojka Pavilion 101-91 in 86 (?!?) possessions.

Fast forward two months, and Fairfield picked up its 18th win of the season and 11th in MAAC play (after combining for 10 the last two seasons) by beating Siena 76-69 on Senior Night at Webster Bank Arena Wednesday. The Stags (17-11, 11-7) did it without freshman Curtis Cobb (ankle) and Jerry Johnson, Jr. (father’s death), who had both been playing starters’ minutes lately and on a night where they shot just 1-11 from behind the arc in the second half.

Although played at a modest 72 possessions, it was Fairfield’s sixth straight win, and the Stags also have a win over Iona on its resume and led Monmouth for much of the contest at WBA before falling. Marcus Gilbert, for so long the shining beacon on a bad team, scored only 12 points in his final home game, but Sydney Johnson and his staff have built what looks like a future MAAC contender around him, between Cobb, Johnson, point guard Jerome Segura, Tyler Nelson, rim protector Jonathan Kasibabu, and Matija Milin, who came off the bench to score 16 points on Wednesday.

This was no gimmick. Fairfield can play, and you can fail to understand that at your own peril.

“Tonight we missed 85 three-pointers and about 20 points per game in Curtis and Jerry, and yet guys stepped up and took advantage of the opportunity they were given,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “I couldn’t be prouder of those guys.”

The new style has hurt Fairfield a bit at the defensive end, they are still 223rd nationally and 8th in the MAAC in defensive efficiency (mostly because of poor rebounding and giving up too many buckets around the rim), but the Stags have held five of its last six opponents in their win streak to 1.00 points per possession or lower (Siena finished at 0.99 ppp Wednesday).

And it has been well worth whatever it costed on defense to help them at the other end. Fairfield was a painful to watch, plodding offense that finished 315th and 311th in efficiency, 10th and 9th (interestingly, Monmouth was 11th and dead last in efficiency two years ago by a fairly wide margin) in the MAAC, respectively. They have been far from perfect this season, just 5th in efficiency, but you certainly don’t have to avert your eyes when Fairfield has the ball anymore. There have been growing pains and poor performances, but for most of the season they have been a joy to watch.

“We finished 10th place last year and now we’ve guaranteed ourselves a bye,” Johnson said. “That’s a heck of a turnaround, 11 more wins than last year and counting. We’re playing at a really high level right now, and it started with all that hard work in the spring and summer.”

Does that mean they will win the MAAC? Probably not, although it’s certainly not impossible. Regardless of how they do Saturday at Saint Peter’s, it’s likely the two teams will meet again next Saturday in Albany, and the physical Peacocks will be tough with the winner of that one likely getting Monmouth in the semifinals.

But Fairfield – who will likely be in postseason of some kind – has pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation this season, and no one is laughing at the Runnin’ Stags anymore. In fact, by this time next season, they may be cursing them.

What else did we learn in Bridgeport Wednesday?:

  1. Nice send-off for Marcus Gilbert

As I mentioned earlier, Gilbert was always the sympathetic figure on a poor team the last two seasons. And although he always has a smile on his face anyway, it’s been more prominent this season as the Stags continue to win. A ankle injury that looked like it might derail his season saw him miss just two games, and although his teammates have taken a little of the pressure off (including Wednesday when he had just 12 points on 4-14 shooting), but he is just 26 points behind Mark Young (1979) for fifth on Fairfield’s all-time scoring list with 1,617.

From a personal standpoint, Gilbert has always been approachable for interviews and almost always seems like he is enjoying himself on the court, which makes you feel good about how this season has gone for him in the final tour around the MAAC. If Fairfield is to spring a major upset in Albany, you figure Gilbert will be prominently involved.

“It’s my last game here in this building, but on to better things,” Gilbert said. “It’s an emotional time because everyone’s parents were here. But I love it here, I would recommend it to anybody.”

2) Has Siena “hit the wall”?

Siena (19-10, 12-6) didn’t arrive at Webster Bank Arena until less than an hour before tip and started the game like it just got off the bus, down 10-0 in the first three minutes. Fairfield led by as many as 17 midway through the second half and it was the second straight game the Saints tried to storm back from a massive deficit (Monday against Iona) only to come up short.

Like Fairfield, Siena is definitely a success story after a dreadful 2014-15 campaign, although it had the opposite problem: a ridiculously leaky defense. However, the Saints have now conceded more than 1.00 ppp in four straight games. Nico Clareth (6 pts., 3-12 FG) and Kenny Wormley (11 pts., 3-8 FG) have looked like the freshmen they are, Marquis Wright (4 pts., 2-10 FG) and Lavon Long (whom Jimmy Patsos benched twice in the first half) played only 18 minutes. Even steady Brett Bisping shot just 6-19.

“You can control what you can control,” Siena coach Jimmy Patsos said. “We’ve started both games badly. We’re going to have to examine why that is. There was no negative energy before either game, we were really hyped up to play I thought. We got good rest, we came down last night, everything was fine. Players have to want to play. We’re struggling with passing and catching right now, whether it’s a long season, or they’re mentally tired or whatever, I don’t know. They made a couple of good plays, but we didn’t answer with good plays of our own.”

The good news is that Siena will still wrap up a No. 3 seed if it beats Quinnipiac at home Sunday, and it should. The bad news is that will almost definitely set up a MAAC quarterfinal with two-time champion Manhattan Saturday, then having to beat Iona and Monmouth on Sunday and Monday, respectively, to win the title.

But they should have a very loud Times Union Center crowd behind them at least.

“Young guys,” Patsos said. “Nico’s playing really well, but we just hit the wall lately. He’s a little tired. When you’re tired, I’d rather have you make layups. Marquis had a lot of emotion in his first game back against Rider, played really well. Now he’s trying to get his sea legs under him. We lost both the last two games in the first four minutes, and whether we’re tired or it’s mental, we’re not playing well at the beginning of games, and I’m going to do something different.”

3) Momentum or nah?

Now is the time of season we talk about “momentum” and “who’s hot”? Does it really matter? Well, not as much as you’d think. But I guess we’ll find out together next week, shall we?

Fairfield was all smiles again after another victory Wednesday

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on