Amidst the wins and losses, the stories of the individual players that inhabit mid-major basketball often get lost in the shuffle.
Amadou Sidibe was a good sophomore player on a bad Fairfield squad in 2014-15 (7-25). The next season was worse, believe it or not, because early in the season Sidibe developed knee problems that he was never really able to shake as the Stags limped to an almost identical 7-24 mark.
Sidibe underwent surgery after that campaign, and hoped to be ready to go by the start of his senior season in 2015-16, but he wasn’t quite 100 percent so the staff and doctors were cautious. Only a month later, it still wasn’t improving and eventually the decision was made to shut him down for the year, turning him into a well-dressed 6’9” cheerleader, a role he embraced as Fairfield went 19-14 (12-8 in the MAAC) and returned to the postseason (CIT).
Originally courted by Ivy League schools out of Cardinal Hayes High in the Bronx, Sidibe got his degree last May, and coming off basically two years away from being healthy, was he going to come back for his final year of eligibility? Would he even be productive enough to do it? Was it worth it?
Yes, yes, and yes, if you’re scoring at home.
Monday night, Fairfield was clinging to a 69-67 lead over Rider with 7 seconds left when Jerry Johnson Jr. missed the front end of a 1-and-1. The Broncs quickly got the ball to their quickest player, Kealon Washington-Ives, and it was a race to the other basket between him, Sidibe, and Sidibe’s repaired knee.
“I was thinking to run as hard as I could to the end of the court, and just hope I could change the shot at least. We just needed one more stop,” Sidibe said.
Fairfield 69, Rider 67 final. Kealon Washington-Ives tried to go right at the rim, but Amadou Sidibe was there waiting. pic.twitter.com/CqthnBoDTI
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) February 14, 2017
They all arrived simultaneously, with Sidibe able to be nimble enough to send Washington-Ives’ shot away and not foul him (although Rider coach Kevin Baggett vehemently disagreed) as the buzzer sounded. Sidibe (who also had 12 points and 10 rebounds, right at his average) jumped and danced for a few seconds, obviously happy at the victory in Fairfield’s only game on campus this season, but also because he was having a blast.
“It’s been fun, especially with what happened last year and how hard it was mentally and physically,” Sidibe said. “I’m thankful for every day out here playing. Every day, I’m just thanking God, because this year wasn’t promised at all and here we are.”
Why shouldn’t he be? There are very few people around the MAAC that have a negative word about Amadou Sidibe, and basketball is enjoyable after all, isn’t? Whatever becomes of Fairfield the rest of the way, Sidibe has been given what he deserved, one last ride around the MAAC with a competitive team behind him.
“He’s a great person,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “All the guys look up to him. The staff admires him, no one more than the head coach. When I grow up, I want to be like Amadou. It’s so gratifying to see someone who’s worked so hard and put so much into the game being able to play. There was never a guarantee this year he would be out there.”
— Fairfield Basketball (@StagsMensBball) February 14, 2017
What else did we learn at Alumni Hall on Monday?
- Fairfield gutting it out
While their pace has not been slow, the Stags are only seventh in the MAAC in adjusted tempo this season (overall, the MAAC plays at the fourth fastest pace of the 32 conferences in Division I). That is due in part to people like Sidibe. It’s hard to argue with the results, Monday was the fourth time in six games that a Stags (13-11, 8-7) game has finished with less than 70 possessions, and they’ve won all four (now five of six overall). Tyler Nelson – who did finish with 16 points and 8 assists – got a bit careless in the second half to end up with 6 turnovers, however Fairfield had just 11 for the contest (15.9%).
But Fairfield, as Monday, has really gotten the job done with defense, one of only three MAAC teams holding opponents to less than 1.00 ppp per game (Saint Peter’s, Monmouth). Sidibe, by the way, is fourth nationally in defensive rebounding rate as the Stags lead the conference in that category. Despite taking plenty (10-for-34 Monday), Fairfield is only seventh in the MAAC (34.9% in three-point shooting. But that might give them hope in Albany, a hot streak with some solid defense could seem them make a run.
“I was really proud of the guys because we needed to get defensive stops to win the game,” Johnson said. “We’ve been really hard on them as far as recommitting ourselves to defense in practice and some of that stuff showed up and helped us over the top tonight.”
2) Small margins for Rider
Kevin Baggett was extremely upset after the game, and not just at the officials. After standing 11-5 and 4-1 in the MAAC, they have gone just 3-8 since, and the Broncs (14-13, 7-9) look more and more like they’re headed toward playing on the first Thursday two weeks from now in Albany. Rider was a dreadful three-point shooting team before hitting 13-19 against Quinnipiac in a wild win Saturday, and followed it up with an 8-12 performance Monday, but it still wasn’t enough as the Broncs were just 17-45 from two-point range.
Missing Stevie Jordan hurts, but Kealon Washington-Ives was 3-3 on threes and finished with 13 points and 6 rebounds. They led 67-61 after Xavier Lundy hit back-to-back threes with 4:00 left, but just couldn’t finish the job.
“We’re one game at a time,” Baggett said. “At the end of the year when the final game is done, then I’ll look at the standings. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win.”
3) Postseason bound?
Fairfield’s win puts it 13-11 overall and means if it can find a way to win three of its final five (no easy task, four are away and the fifth in Monmouth) it will finish at 11-9 which should be good enough to sneak into the top five and get them a first-round bye in the MAAC Tournament.
It would also assure the Stags of a winning record and another probable bid in the CIT, which has been good to Fairfield in the past few years. But Sydney Johnson insists it’s just the old one game at a time, even at this point.
“My wife starts to talk to talk about that stuff, but I’m not that worried about it,” Johnson said. “It’s important to try to stay in the moment, you’re never as great as you seem, and you’re never as bad as you think you are after a loss. We just have to keep our focus.”