As seen in this morning’s Connecticut Post, our editor-in-chief, Tom Cleary, recaps men’s basketball’s semifinal win over Niagara.

ALBANY, N.Y. — A weekend that started with a trip to the hospital for Fairfield men’s basketball coach Ed Cooley will now extend into Monday night, as the Stags advanced to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament championship with a 69-63 victory over Niagara Sunday night at the Times Union Center.

Cooley, who is on antibiotics for a stomach illness that sent him to a local hospital Friday morning, will make his first trip to the championship game in his four years at Fairfield when the Stags play two-time defending champion Siena on its home court tonight at 7 p.m. (ESPN2). It is the first time in seven years that the Stags will play in the title game. Fairfield (22-9) last won the championship in 1997.

“I haven’t felt well. I feel great now, not just from the win, I thought the doctors up here gave me some great medication,” Cooley said. “It was a hard-fought, high, high level game. There was a time we were down eight and I looked Anthony Johnson in the eyes and said `you have to be dominant. I’m not ready to send you back to Lake Wales yet.’ ”

The Florida native Johnson, a senior, scored a game-high 21 points and pulled down eight rebounds.

Fairfield overcame a seven-point deficit with just over seven minutes to play and went on an 11-1 run over the next six minutes to take a 64-59 lead over the Purple Eagles with 1:28 left in the game. Fairfield had its first lead since the start of the second half at the 3:29 mark, 60-59, and never lost it.

Freshman guard Derek Needham scored his 500th point of the season, becoming the 10th player in Fairfield history to reach that mark. Niagara senior Tyrone Lewis closed out his career with 20 points before fouling out late in the game.

Off the bench, Colin Nickerson chipped in with 14 points and Ryan Olander scored 11, with seven coming in the first half when Johnson was out bench outscored Purple Eagles’ bench 31-4.

Fairfield held Niagara to just 37.3 percent shooting from the floor, and the Stags shot 40.7 percent themselves.

Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich praised Cooley’s ability to overcome the injuries to three starters (Greg Nero, Warren Edney and Yorel Hawkins), but pointed out that Needham and Johnson never got hurt.

“I know what Eddie was going through, he did a good job of keeping those guys together,” Mihalich said. “He had the one-two punch of Needham and Anthony Johnson; they’re terrific. I don’t mean to take anything away from them, but neither one of those guys got hurt. As long as those guys are out there that’s a pretty good team.”

For Johnson and Cooley, who arrived at Fairfield together, it is their first trip to the championship.

“He’s a winner, he looked me in the eyes and when he said `I’ve got your back coach,’ he gives me energy and he doesn’t know that,” Cooley said. “I’ve got to believe in the big guy.”

“This is a great opportunity,” Johnson added. “I’ve been wanting to play in a championship game since my freshman year, seeing Tyrone Lewis win the MVP on our floor … I feel like once we get there, we’ll perform.”

In the first half, neither team led by more than six points and there were 13 lead changes. But the key stretch for Fairfield came after Johnson went to the bench with two fouls with just over 12 minutes left in the half. Olander came in and finished the half with seven points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.

“I went in and played hard,” Olander said. “I’ve been working hard, extra workouts, and all that hard work is just starting to pay off now. Playing hard, playing my role.”

Fairfield led at the half 31-29 on a last-second tip-in by junior Lyndon Jordan.

In the second half, Fairfield withstood two runs by Niagara (18-15) and trailed by seven points twice before cutting into the lead. During the final run Johnson scored seven points, including an offensive rebound and put-back on a missed free throw by Mike Evanovich with 6:51 left that cut the Niagara lead to four, 58-54.

“It defies logic to have four guys in there and they have two and the two guys get the rebound instead of the four,” Mihalich said. “That was a backbreaker.”

Now the Stags turn their attention to Siena (26-6), which defeated Rider in the other semifinal game 72-62. The Saints have won 37 straight on their home floor.

“We’re happy to be here, we can play on the moon, we can play on the streets, we can play hub cap to hub cap,” Cooley said. “All we are trying to do is give ourselves an opportunity to continue to advance.

“We don’t care where the game is played.”

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