The game started off extremely slow for both teams offensively as both squads shot around 30% from the field, and Fairfield made only 1 out of 10 three-point shot attempts. However, the second half was an entirely different story with Fairfield shooting 54% from the field with multiple players draining clutch shots from beyond the arc.
But in the end, it was success from the free throw line that sealed the victory for the Stags. Both Rakim Sanders and Sean Crawford stayed composed at the line, which allowed Coach Johnson’s Fairfield team to survive their quarterfinal match-up.
“I’m thrilled to be along side with these guys and be part of a gutsy win. To really grind this one out is a confidence booster for us. Rider was playing their best basketball in this part of the season and they were certainly a worthy opponent,” said Coach Johnson.
With the absence of Fairfield guard Derek Needham in this tournament due to a broken foot, it was up to the bench to make sure backcourt play remained strong for the Stags. Depth proved to be key for the Stags in that respect as Desmond Wade, Jamel Fields, and Sean Crawford all stepped up in a win or go home situation. Down the stretch, multiple Fairfield players nailed big shots when momentum seemed to be going in the Rider’s direction. The Stags had 22 points off the bench in the contest with the Broncs having only 9.
“We know we’re capable of hitting big shots. With Derek out, I definitely felt like I had to take shots and make them and that’s what I did today,” said guard Desmond Wade.
Coach Johnson was impressed by the way his team stuck together without the presence of their All-MAAC guard on the court.
“In every game you have to stay true and within yourself to make sure every possession is as important as the next one. Without Derek today, this is the best I can ask of them,” said Johnson.
Senior forward Rakim Sanders led Fairfield scorers with 15 points and 8 rebounds, once again proving why he is one of the most dominant players in the MAAC. Although Rider was relentlessly double-teaming Sanders, the All-MAAC player was never fazed and made sure his team was going to move on in the tournament.
“Over the season we’ve learned basketball is a game of runs, and we want to be on a run at the end of every game. We just had to worry about what we were doing and make sure mistakes didn’t compound on each other, and that’s what we did,” said Sanders.
The Stags will take on Iona in the MAAC semifinal game on Sunday after they defeated the Marist Red Foxes 87-63 in Saturday’s other quarterfinal contest. The high-powered Gaels were the MAAC regular season champions and beat Fairfield in both matchups this year. Nevertheless, Coach Johnson is sticking to his teams’ game-by-game, day-by-day philosophy.
“Every game is precious and it will be contested fiercely. When we’re driven defensively, it makes us looser on offense. We’re doing enough to get by and if we can do that each game we’ll be happy,” said Johnson.
Gametime is slated for 2 p.m. at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, MA.