In many cases, the loss of a team’s two leading scorers hampers any chance of success for the remainder of the season.

For the Fairfield University men’s basketball team, however, the loss has largely been overcome, as the Stags have earned a third-place seed in the upcoming Metro-Atlantic Athletic conference tournament.

After losing leading scorers Deng Gai’05 and Terrance Todd’06 in late January for the remainder of the regular season, the Stags fought hard to maintain their competitive level of play, looking upon each other to step up to the challenge.

“They’ve done a tremendous job,” head coach Tim O’Toole told the Mirror earlier in the year. “When you lose a guy like Deng people have to step it up where he left off. Everyone has stepped it up. I’m proud of them.”

The Stags ended the season 9-2 without the two players and finished with a 12-6 conference record, just one-game out of second place.

“It’s tough to lose guys like Deng and Terrance,” said Michael Bell’06. “But we’ve been playing the last few games without them and guys are ready to step up.”

Despite a fantastic season in 2002-03, in which they garnered a spot in the MAAC tournament title game and a berth in the National Invitation Tournament, the Stags were predicted to finish fifth in the MAAC preseason polls, or right in the middle of the conference standings. Despite this disheartening statistic, Fairfield refused to worry, as they paid little heed to the early ranking.

“The preseason rankings don’t matter,” said Kudjo Sogadzi’05. “We always thought we could be one of the best in the league.”

Another player said rankings were not a concern.

“Certain people see [the rankings], but no one cares about it too much really,” said Bell. “It’s not where you start the season, but where you finish it that matters.”

The Stags first game of the tournament will be played on Saturday, March 6 in Albany, NY. They will take on the winners of Friday’s match-up between 6th seed Siena College and 10th seed Marist College.

Despite a disappointing, 60-58 loss against Siena last weekend in their last regular season game, the Stags are confident about another match up with the Saints, believing the outcome will be different.

“It was a disappointing loss to Siena, and we were disappointed in our effort,” said Bell. “But things happen and we’re definitely ready to get back there and play.”

“Siena is a tough place to play at,” said Sogadzi. “We could have easily won but we just beat ourselves. We have a great chance to play them again. We just need to play our game.”

While the Stags were hoping to have Gai back on the court by tournament time, it now appears unlikely, as the ankle injury he suffered mid-way through the season has still not fully healed.

“It’s still sore and I can’t even run on it,” said Gai. “I thought I would be back for MAAC’s but it may be a few more weeks before I’m fully back.”

Despite the severity of his injury, Gai intends to travel with the team to the tournament, possibly participating if deemed absolutely necessary.

“I want to play so badly, but I can’t give them all I can give them,” he said. “If I’m not helping them, I want to sit, since they’ve been playing so well without me.”

With the possibility of playing without Gai for the tournament, Fairfield will look toward captain Rob Thomson’04 for leadership on the court, as many have considered him the key to the Stags success this season.

“Robbie has been great,” said Gai. “It’s his senior year and he’s looking to play after college. He’s just been playing great.”

“Rob’s been key to the team the whole year,” said Bell. “We all look to him for leadership.”

Thomson, along with teammate Dewitt Maxwell’06, recently earned his first All-MAAC team selection, garnering first team honors with Maxwell earning a third team selection.

While the Stags will look to these two players to help continue the success of last season, possibly earning another chance at the MAAC title, the team remains focused on the task at hand, looking forward to their first tournament match-up.

“Ultimately the goal is to win the whole thing, but we need to take it one game at a time,” said Bell.

“The minute you take your eye off of that, you get stung. We’re just focused on Saturday,” Bell said.

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