Tyler Nelson has been waiting his entire life for a moment like this. Fairfield’s captain has averaged 24.7 ppg this MAAC tournament and has his Stags on the verge of their first MAAC title since 1997.
Earlier this season, Nelson became the program’s all-time leading scorer. His 32-point effort against Quinnipiac on Feb. 17 pushed him past Tony George (’86) for the all-time Fairfield record, and he enters tonight’s title bout seventh in MAAC history with 2,147 career points.
The Stags have captured three MAAC championships in their history, winning it all in back-to-back seasons in 1986 and 1987 in addition to the 1997 run. Fairfield has also reached another four title games, coming up short in 1996, 2003, 2010, and 2012. The Stags will seek to even their record when they take on defending champions Iona tonight at 7:00 on ESPN.
“It would be beyond words,” Nelson said of potentially winning a MAAC title. “It would be an awesome feeling and awesome for the school. It would just be surreal.”
In a tournament of upsets, which saw the top three seeds eliminated in the quarterfinals, Fairfield is embracing the underdog mentality, led headfirst by its captain and his desire to prove himself.
Nelson was named preseason MAAC Player of the Year, but despite leading the league in scoring did not receive a single vote for the postseason award, which was split between Niagara’s Kahlil Dukes and Canisius’ Jermaine Crumpton.
“Obviously as a senior this is your last chance to make it to March Madness, so it’s really exciting,” Nelson said of the opportunity Monday night presents. ”We’re on a roll right now, we’re playing good basketball, so we’re just really excited and we’re focused.”
The Stags are indeed on a roll, as they enter Monday’s title game the hottest team in the MAAC. Fairfield has captured seven wins a row, its longest winning streak in seven seasons under head coach Sydney Johnson and the program’s best run wins taking 11 straight under current Providence head coach Ed Cooley during the 2010-11 campaign.
“I think our talented new guys, their game experience caught up with their talent level, so they can kind of perform and do the things they need to do in crucial moments,” Johnson said of his team’s excellent second half play. “Early in conference play it just wasn’t happening. They needed game experience to grow up.”
Nelson has been the Stags unquestioned leader, but secondary options have stepped up this tournament to guide Fairfield to this point. Sophomore guard Ferron Flavors Jr. is averaging 16.3 ppg this tournament, and his 4-5 start from beyond the arc against Quinnipiac Sunday night was pivotal to the Stags moving on to Monday.
Like the team as a whole, Johnson believes Flavors took some time to get used to playing at this level and in sync with his teammates.
“He wasn’t in over his head at all, but just kind of getting comfortable with his role and what we need from him,” Johnson said of Flavors. “Now he’s in such a good groove. He’s also improved defensively, so he’s more valuable even if he misses a few shots. He’s getting rebounds, so we’ve got to keep that guy out there. I think all these things have made it to the point where he’s a really important player for us.”
Fairfield’s guards have been crucial toward reaching the doorstep of a MAAC title, but the play of Jonathan Kasibabu inside cannot be overlooked. The junior forward leads the MAAC in field goal percentage by a wide margin, with his .680 mark well ahead of Iona’s T.K. Edogi, who sits second at .563. A 68% free throw shooter for the season, Kasibabu has also come up huge by making all nine of his attempts from the charity stripe during this tournament.
“He’s a lot more comfortable,” Johnson said of Kasibabu. “Freshman and sophomore year, he had good games, but he was almost sped up a little bit. He’s got a huge heart, he was so eager to do well. Now he’s got that same eagerness, but there’s just an understanding of pace and time and situation. He just looks like he belongs, and so he’s making really good decisions and he’s really blossomed this year.”
As for Nelson, Johnson has often heaped praise on his prized player. With an opportunity to make history alongside who he calls the best player he has ever coached, the Stags’ coach is hoping for the best, but grateful foremost for the journey the two have taken together.
“I wanted to be able to return all that he gave to our program,” Johnson said of Nelson. “Someone who’s given so much of himself…for him to have this moment with an opportunity to win a championship, that’s meaningful to me because it’s like this is a reward for all that he’s done for us. We’d love to close it out, but either way it goes we’re going to be able to celebrate and have this moment, and he’s certainly worthy of it.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.