After rattling off two straight wins in the MAAC Tournament, the Fairfield men’s basketball team lost a heartbreaker, 48-44, to the Loyola Greyhounds in Monday’s MAAC Championship game.

The Stags could not have been more solid defensively, as they have been all season long, but Fairfield’s inability to score allowed the Greyhounds to edge out a victory and win an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Fairfield shot a season-low 28 percent  from the field and was held to their lowest point total of the season. Loyola’s defense was impenetrable coming out of halftime as the Stags were held scoreless for nearly the first eight minutes of the second half.

In a game in which buckets were hard to come by, Stags point guard Desmond Wade nailed an improbable three-pointer with 2:42 left in the contest that narrowed the deficit to 47-44, giving Fairfield a glimmer of hope.

“We still felt like we had an opportunity to win at that point in the game,” said Wade. “We just fell short.”

Senior captains Rakim Sanders and Ryan Olander had chances from beyond the arc to tie the game and make a comeback, but in the end it was just not in the cards for the Stags.  Sanders led the Fairfield with 12 points while Loyola was relentlessly double-teaming him throughout the contest, knowing how dangerous of a player he has been for Fairfield all year long.

“I just wanted it so bad for myself and for my teammates, so yeah, this is as tough as it gets,” said Sanders.

While Fairfield had no lack of offense in the team’s 85-75 MAAC Semi-final win over the No. 1 seeded Iona Gaels, the Stags lacked the presence of an outside threat against the Greyhounds as they shot only 2-11 from the three-point line.

Coach Sydney Johnson of the Stags did not hide his disappointment after the game and was quick to credit Loyola’s work ethic in the high-pressure win-or-go-home situation.

“We’re pretty devastated right now and crushed that’s it’s not us [to advance].   Patsos [Loyola’s head coach] had his team playing hard and their defense was as good as ours, which is something we pride ourselves on.  We held them to 48 points and in a Division 1 game that’s usually enough to win,” said Coach Johnson, who would have made his second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance with a victory.

Loyola will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1994, the only previous year they had won a MAAC Championship.

Junior Greyhound forward Erik Etherley, who scored 10 points, gathered seven rebounds, and blocked three shots, proved to be a dominant defensive force throughout the game as he altered many of Fairfield’s shot attempts.

Etherly was named the MAAC Tournament MVP due to his strong efforts in Loyola’s three victories over the course of the weekend in Springfield, MA.

In a season in which the depth of guard play was a primary strength for the Stags, the backcourt provided only nine points in the loss to Loyola as Fairfield was denied a MAAC championship for second time in three years.

Nevertheless, Jamel Fields and Sean Crawford of the Stags played through injuries and showed a lot of heart while starter Desmond Wade had limited minutes due to early trouble.

“We left everything we had on the court and they dug deep to put themselves in a situation to win. we just didn’t score enough baskets,” said Johnson, as he acknowledged the passion demonstrated by his group.

Sophomore forward Maurice Barrow missed a couple of easy lay-ups in the contest, but he was a monster under the basket with 13 rebounds against the Greyhounds.

Senior center Ryan Olander missed a tightly contested three-point attempt late in the game, but scored 11 points and had three blocks.

The frontcourt was instrumental in keeping the Stags in the game as Fairfield had 26 points in the paint compared to Loyola’s 14.

“We’re a family. We’re very close. It’s a collective group effort. We just weren’t able to convert in the end and unfortunately it had to be today,” said Olander.

Rakim Sanders and Desmond Wade earned All-MAAC Tournament team honors for their performances over the weekend.

And despite the loss in the MAAC Championship game, Coach Johnson is confident that his team will be invited to a postseason tournament such as the College Basketball Invitation or the Tournament.

“People didn’t have faith in this team, but now people have taken notice. It would take some sting away to continue to play basketball and show who we are,” said Johnson.

The Stags played in the CIT two years ago and came out of that tournament with an impressive come-from-behind victory against a highly respected George Mason program.

Fairfield was down 27 points at halftime, but came away with a 101-96 victory.

Regardless, the Stags will have to wait until the NCAA and NIT fields are chosen next Sunday before finding out if they will have another opportunity to show what they are made of.

The blood, sweat and tears this team have shown are impressive in a season full of ups and downs as the Stags overcame a good deal of adversity, especially when they lost junior guard Derek Needham after he broke his foot against Iona toward the end of the regular season.

And as Coach Johnson said after the tough defeat, hopefully this will not be the last game this team plays together.

“We will be good and we will move on,” senior Rakim Sanders said. “Hopefully, like coach said, there will be more basketball to be played.”

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