This proved to be true again this past Monday night as the Stags traveled to Marist and beat the Red Foxes by a score of 60-49.
Fairfield was relentless on the defensive side of the ball as Marist accumulated only 12 points in the first half of play. The Stags held the Red Foxes to 32 percent shooting and stole the ball from the Red Foxes 15 times.
All year long, Coach Sydney Johnson has attempted to instill defensive tenacity amongst his players, and it’s certainly paying off at the right time of the year.
“Over this stretch of games, we’ve been playing some great defense. We aren’t always flawless on offense, but no matter happens we are defending well and that comes from all of the hard work during practice,” said Johnson.
Coach Johnson and his team point to their loss on the road to Manhattan back in January as the season’s turning point. The Stags have posted a 9-3 record since that loss.
“The chemistry with the guys and their commitment has improved greatly. After that Manhattan game, we turned into a different team. Hopefully we can hold onto the form that we have now,” said Johnson.
After a setback against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee last Saturday, three Stags scored in double figures versus Marist, including 16 points from junior guard Derek Needham. With usual starter Desmond Wade still out with a left hamstring injury, there has been a certain level of pressure for Fairfield’s guards to step up.
“It’s been guards by committee with Desmond out. We’ve put a lot of pressure on Derek to lead the team, and he’s having an All-Conference type year,” said Johnson.
Senior center Ryan Olander is also starting to regain his prior form as he posted impressive numbers against Marist with 12 points (3-5 from three-point range) and three blocks.
“Whether it shows up on the stat sheet or not, Ryan’s leadership and presence always helps us to get that win,” said forward Rakim Sanders.
Fairfield will need all the production they can get going into Friday’s highly anticipated game against the Iona Gaels, who are in first place in the MAAC with a 22-6 (13-3 MAAC) record.
It will be a tough task for Fairfield who are 7-8 on the road this season, while the Gaels possess a dominating 9-1 home record. Although Fairfield is a strong defensive team, they face off against an Iona squad that is ranked first in the entire country in both points per game (83.1) and assists per game (19.4).
The Gael trio of Michael Glover, Lamont Jones, and Scott Machado has been hard for any team to stop, but Fairfield is more than capable of doing so.
In order to have a shot at the number 1 seed going into the MAAC Tournament, they will need to defeat the Gaels as well as Rider in another road contest on Sunday.
Nevertheless, Fairfield can be ranked as no lower than the fourth seed in the MAAC Tournament, putting themselves in a position to be successful late this season.
The Stags have certainly matured and come together over the course of this year, but only time will tell to see if they can accomplish their pre-season goal: a MAAC championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.