With a 27 point deficit with just over 16 minutes to go against George Mason, Stags fans and even coaches averted their eyes from the game in front of them. But not the players. Instead of a loss, the Stags recorded the biggest comeback, from down 27 points, in NCAA postseason history – NCAA tournament and NIT included.
It was nearly a humiliation on top of a crushing defeat in overtime of the MAAC Championship against now three-time consecutive champions Siena. Not exactly the way Fairfield planned on finishing its season and definitely not the way seniors Anthony Johnson and Mike Evanovich planned on going out.
But somewhere inside, the Stags found the heart that powered them to a 22 (now 23) victory season. That drive was led by players like Johnson, who overcame a blood clot and powered his way to an All-MAAC First Team spot and Evanovich, who now ranks in the top three in three-point shooters in Stags history. Throw in the indomitable will of freshman Derek Needham and Fairfield had the formula to perform a comeback never before seen in its history, or college basketball postseason history.
The Stags outscored George Mason 51-24 in the final 16 minutes to lead them to the 101-96 overtime victory. Evanovich scored a career-high 32 points, including nine three-pointers, a school single-game record, breaking a record of eight that he held along with Jermaine Clark. He hit two NBA-range three-pointers in the final minute, including a falling away three-pointer with one second left to tie the game and send it into overtime. Needham, who finished with 21 points, also drained a three-pointer from the corner to cut into the lead in the final minute. Fairfield had trailed by seven with under 30 seconds to play.
In overtime, Johnson took the stage and stepped up, scoring 11 of Fairfield’s 14 points and outscoring the entire Patriots squad. Fairfield, now 23-10 overall, took its largest lead of the game during the overtime frame, 98-93 with 35 seconds left on a pair of Needham free throws.
The Stags will now face the winner of Harvard and Appalachian State, who play on Wednesday night. The game will likely be played next Monday, but no date or time has officially been set as of print.
Fairfield was coming off of one of its best MAAC tournament performances in recent years, reaching the championship game against Siena last Monday. Fairfield took Siena down to the wire, before falling in overtime, 72-65 in the tournament hosted in Albany, the home of the Saints. The Stags led at the half and had a shot at victory at the buzzer out of the hands of Colin Nickerson, but the it fell short. Fairfield had the ball with just over 20 seconds left, but Siena had only two team fouls and used the remaining fouls to whittle down the clock, not allowing Fairfield to get off a clean shot.
“They earned it,” Fairfield coach Ed Cooley said. “They made some timely baskets, some timely rebounds and it just wasn’t our time.”
After the loss Fairfield hoped to earn a spot in the NIT, but were passed over and accepted a spot in the CIT, the “third-tier” tournament, consisting of all mid-major level teams. Last season, in the inaugural tournament, Old Dominion from the Colonial Athletic Association won the championship and used that victory to push the Monarchs to the NCAA tournament this year.
Fairfield will hope for a similar push if the miraculous overtime win over George Mason can propel the Stags further into the CIT.
Needham, who has scored over 500 points this season, just the fourth player in Fairfield history to ever reach that mark in a single season, said after the game he will be driven even further next season.
“I’m going to think about this game until I’m cutting down the nets next March,” Needham said.
Fairfield hosts next year’s MAAC tournament and following the loss to Siena, Cooley laughed and said that next year he hopes things will be different. Instead of an arena filled with screaming Siena fans, he wants to see an arena filled with Fairfield fans.
If this gutsy run of success continues in the CIT, the Stags may see a packed Arena at Harbor Yard sooner than they ever thought possible. Maybe Needham will be cutting down the nets twice in two seasons, celebrating a CIT championship. But as usual, Fairfield won’t get ahead of itself, the Stags will continue to take it just take it one game at a time, one minute at a time, even with the odds stacked against them.