The Fairfield Stags pulled an inside straight on the final weekend of the regular season and beat out Canisius to earn the fifth and final first-round bye in this weekend’s conference tournament. Sydney Johnson’s crew made the trip to western New York trailing the Golden Griffins by one game with two left to play, but would have to win the bye outright as Canisius held the advantage in a tiebreaker.
The Stags (11-9) took down Canisius 58-55 in the first game of the trip thanks to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from junior Tyler Nelson. Then on the final day of the regular season, Fairfield got past Niagara 62-58 while the Golden Griffins fell to Saint Peter’s, leaving the Stags alone in fifth place.
Player to watch: #3 Tyler Nelson, Jr. G
“Coaches will tell you going on the road can sometimes be a terrific thing,” Johnson said of the season’s final trip. “It’s hard to win on the road, but to just get time together in that kind of bunker mentality, our guys like each other and we’re trying to win games as a group.”
Fairfield will be one of the last teams to make an appearance in Albany, as the #5 seeded Stags open play against #4 seed Siena in the quarterfinal round Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. in a game that has been flexed to the ESPNU network.
Nelson is the team’s leading scorer and an all-MAAC First Team selection at 18.9 points per game, a total which ranks second in the league only to Monmouth’s Justin Robinson. Nelson is the team’s leading deep threat at 38% from behind the arc, but also ranks second with 3.5 assists per game.
“The kid’s been tremendous for us, and I think we have a good relationship,” Johnson said of Nelson. “I have tried to coach him hard. I’ve put a lot on his plate and challenged him a lot, and he just takes it all in and then just goes out and does it. He’s just a very talented kid. He was that before he got here, but he’s accepted a whole lot of coaching, and I’m just really proud of how he’s going about his business.”
Supporting Nelson in the backcourt are sophomores Curtis Cobb and Jerry Johnson Jr., who check in at 12.7 and 11.5 ppg respectively and each connect at 35% from long range. Fifth-year forward Amadou Sidibe anchors the team’s frontcourt with 8.2 ppg & a team-leading 9.4 rebounds per contest, and is the only senior on the roster to play significant minutes.
Amongst MAAC players, Sidibe’s rebounding average is eclipsed only by Siena forward Brett Bisping at 9.6 per game. The two will square off in the Time Union Center paint Saturday night, but the onus will be on Sidibe to stay out of foul trouble. According to KenPom.com, the Stags’ senior commits 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes to Bisping’s 3.9. When Sidibe is able to stay on the court, however, he is one of the league’s most efficient players. Averaging just 22.6 minutes per game this season, Sidibe leads the league with a .580 field goal percentage.
The elephant in the room is obviously the fact that the MAAC tournament is contested on Siena’s home floor. Added to the fact that Fairfield must play what amounts to a road game in the quarterfinals, if they should win it will be a quick turnaround to Sunday’s semifinal and a likely meeting with top-seeded Monmouth, who bounced the Stags from last year’s tournament in the semifinals after Fairfield won a 4/5 matchup against Saint Peter’s.
“I think it’s very difficult, there’s no doubt about it,” Johnson said of the quick turnaround to a potential semifinal. “To be perfectly frank, if we’re able to advance I’m not complaining about a damn thing. We’re just happy to try to keep playing, if that’s what we can do and that’s what the Lord wills, I’m not going to complain about the game time.”
The Saints swept the season series from Fairfield, but both meetings came early in the year. Siena’s Nico Clareth poured in a career-high 33 points to lead his team past the Stags 80-73 on December 3, and the Saints followed up with the 63-54 victory January 15 in Bridgeport, in what was Siena’s first road win of the season.
“We know we have our work cut out for us with Siena,” Johnson added. “First we just want to rest up, watch film and get back in the gym in a day or so and just try to put ourselves in the best position to play well.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.