Fairfield has enjoyed a terrific second half of the season leading up to tonight’s MAAC championship game. The Stags have won seven in a row and 10 of 12 heading into Monday night’s showdown against Iona.
Sophomore point guard Aidas Kavaliauskas has played a pivotal role in Fairfield’s second-half success, but his journey nearly never got out of the starting gate. A native of Kaunas, Lithuania, Kavaliauskas was initially recruited by Fairfield assistant Tom Parrotta nearly three years ago, but did not play an NCAA game until midway through this season.
When the Stags first sought to bring their point guard of the future stateside, delays in the immigration process and a denial of his travel visa put plans on hold. The staff was finally able to bring Kavaliauskas to Bridgeport last season, but not before the start of the playing year. He was forced to sit out the latter portion of last season and the first half of this year’s campaign.
“The whole journey was really long,” Kavaliauskas said. “I was supposed to come my freshman year in the summer, but my visa got denied several times, so I couldn’t come here. We stuck with it and last year in the middle of the year I came here. It was a long process with the NCAA, and I just got cleared the past winter. It’s been really long, that’s why I’m so excited to play now.”
Prior to his time at Fairfield, Kavaliauskas has gotten plenty of experience from a number of sources. He participated in an NCAA showcase in Turkey and played a year at SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio, but nothing compares to his experience playing in his native Lithuania.
“The culture is really big,” Kavaliauskas said of basketball in Lithuania. “We call our second religion because it’s such a big thing. All the games are packed. We have only three million people, but it’s such a big thing there.”
Kavaliauskas played his first game as a Stag on Jan. 5 at Rider. He finished 2-2 from the field for six points with a pair of assists. That modest debut gave no indication of the player the Stags had unleashed, but it didn’t take long for the rest of the league to take notice.
In his fourth career game at Marist, the Stags’ sophomore earned his first start and responded with a 14-point, 10 assist effort. That performance was no flash in the pan, as Kavaliauskas took the court the following week against Niagara to post another 14 points along with 11 assists.
“We need our point guard to score a bit, and so he can make a shot, he can get to the rim, and facilitate,” head coach Sydney Johnson said. “I think that’s helped our team and made our backcourt a little bit more potent.”
He has since posted one other double-digit assist effort: a 12-dime performance in the Stags’ 103-100 overtime win over Iona on Jan. 29. In 19 games this season, Kavaliauskas has dished out 91 total assists, 18 shy of Tyler Nelson’s team lead. However, Nelson has appeared in all 32 of Fairfield’s game and thus Kavaliauskas leads the squad with a 4.8 apg average.
Nelson may push the newcomer in the assist game, but has been more than happy to be his number one target as well. The duo have combined for a potent punch with Nelson the league’s top scorer at 22.1 ppg.
“He’s a smart player,” Nelson said of Kavaliauskas. “He’s been getting us a lot of shots and running the offense, so it’s been great to have him out there.”
“A few games I had a lot of assists, and probably had half of them to him,” Kavaliauskas said of his captain. “He’s a really good shooter, I just need to find him that split second when he needs to catch and shoot. It’s really good to be with him, and I know he can create after I pass him the ball and he’s not just a catch & shoot guy. He’s definitely one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”
Along with senior Jerome Segura, Kavaliauskas has provided Fairfield an excellent security blanket at the point. Additionally, with the former set to graduate at the close of this season, the Lithuanian sensation has helped convince fans in southern Connecticut that the future is bright.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.