Heart. Perseverance. Passion.
The Fairfield men’s basketball team demonstrated all of these qualities in their well-deserved 85-75 victory over the No. 1 seeded, and nation leading team in scoring offense, Iona Gaels on Sunday in the MAAC semifinal matchup.
The first half of the contest showcased offensive fireworks from both squads with Fairfield shooting 61% from the field and Iona shooting 58%. Junior guard Colin Nickerson, usually recognized for his defensive skills, was in the zone from beyond the arc early on (3-3 3pt. FG), scoring 13 of his 14 total points in the first half.
“I’ve passed up a lot of shots over the course of this season, but my teammates told me just to be confident. And after I hit the first three I just started to feel it,” said Nickerson.
All-MAAC senior forward Rakim Sanders was once again an authoritative figure on the court for the Stags as he led the team with a career-high 26 points and 12 rebounds, which marks his ninth double-double of the season. Rebounding proved to be an important aspect of the game for Fairfield as the Stags caromed 36 boards compared to the Gaels 20.
Although Iona guard Scott Machado (NCAA leader in assists) was a force to be reckoned with in the first half with 16 points and shooting 5-7 from the floor, Sanders and the rest of the Fairfield squad were always ready to respond.
“It’s all because of my teammates and their trust in me. We work hard every day and during the game I said I didn’t want this to be my last game. From then on, the energy was on,” said Sanders.
It was a complete team effort for the Stags as four Fairfield players had double digit points. Point guard Desmond Wade was the savvy floor general with his 11 assists and only 2 turnovers, while sophomore forward Keith Matthews provided energy off the bench and scored a timely career-high 14 points.
“I just tried to be confident and play hard with a lot of passion. We knew what everybody on this team was capable of and we turned it up a notch today,” said Matthews.
Coach Sydney Johnson and his team, who were the first ranked scoring defense in the MAAC this season, were able to contain the Gaels in the second half as Iona shot only 40% from the field. Although questionable officiating led to a lot of Fairfield team fouls late in the game, the Stags resiliency led to the meaningful victory as Fairfield lost both games to Iona in the regular season.
“Iona is a really good team, Scott Machado is a great player and even though he controlled the game early on, we were able to slow him down later on. We needed something special and everyone elevated their game today. Our guys definitely showed up at a key time,” said Johnson.
Consistency hasn’t exactly been the forte of the Stags throughout the course of this season and losing junior guard Derek Needham could have been a roadblock, but Fairfield has moved on in the MAAC Tournament due to their constant dedication and determination.
“We’ve had a lot of resiliency with our leadership, willingness to move on after making mistakes. Something clicked with us midway through the season. Our captains are playing for each other, and everyone else has followed along. We’ve become a true team,” said Johnson, who will be advancing to his first MAAC Championship Final as the Stags first-year coach.
Fairfield will be squaring off against the No. 2 seeded Loyola Greyhounds in the championship game. Loyola defeated the Siena Saints 70-60 in their MAAC semifinal game to advance in the tournament. The Stags split the two regular season match-ups against Loyola, most recently beating the Greyhounds 68-51 back in early February.
Despite the fact that Derek Needham is out indefinitely and the status of guard Jamel Fields is questionable due to an injury he sustained against Iona, Fairfield will be more than ready to take advantage of this opportunity and achieve their goal; a MAAC Tournament Championship and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We have a huge game tomorrow, there’s still more basketball to be played. We’ve had to go through the fire and it’s still pretty hot,” said Johnson.
The MAAC Championship game will be played at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, MA. Game-time is slated for 7 p.m. and it will be broadcasted nationally on ESPN2.