Peter Caty/ The Mirror

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. Walking off their home court with their heads down after a 66-48 upset loss against Saint Peters. Everything seemed destined for the Stags first NCAA appearance since 1997. They were playing on their own court in front of their home fans. They were the top seed for the first time in 25 years. They tied a program record with 24 wins. They were playing St. Peters, a team that Coach Cooley had never lost to in five years.

It wasn’t supposed to end in the semi finals with a number four seed celebrating on the Stags logo and sitting in the stands awaiting their opponent in the Championship game. “It hurts. I hurt for my seniors. I hurt for our University. I hurt for our community. We thought we built a championship team through our recruiting. It just didn’t happen.” Cooley said.

Through all the great moments that this season has brought the team, 20 minutes in the MAAC Final Four could have overshadowed all those accomplishments.

The Stags struggled mightily in the first half, as they were limited to a 4-12 mark on the floor while committing 13 turnovers. All totaled Fairfield managed just 15 first half points. The fifth best defensive unit in the nation also failed to show up in the first half. St. Peters shot nearly 60 percent and ended the half on an 18-1 run. The top seed trailed by 25 points going into intermission, and Coach Cooley was surprised at the team’s unenergetic play. “The first twenty minutes we just really weren’t ready to play,” Cooley said. “We didn’t play with a lot of emotion. I thought we were really out of character as a group.”

Senior Yorel Hawkins who played in his final MAAC tournament game, and also scored his 1,000th career point in the loss, was also shocked at the listless play. “We didn’t bring it the first half. I don’t know if we were still sleeping or what. They brought it the first half. They were hitting every shot. We weren’t playing defense they beat us up on the backboards.”

They Stags were down by 25 and the dream to cut down the nets seemed all but done. But this is the same team that owns one of the biggest comeback in NCAA Postseason history. And for the first 14 minutes in the second half it seemed as they were on the verge of an encore as they cut the deficit to as little as six points and held St. Peters to only 1 basket through the first twelve minutes.

But after a pair of turnovers, the Peacocks regained their composure and were able to hang on for the upset. Through those 14 minutes of energetic and impressive play, the fans started to feel like something special could have happened. It just wasn’t meant to happen. But Cooley was happy that the team never quit. “[I’m] proud of our group, extremely proud of our group. Our effort to get back into the game,” Cooley said.

Even with this heartbreaking loss Cooley believes when you reflect back to where the program has come, it is a step forward. “I don’t want this game to take away of what this program has accomplished in a short period of time…as disappointed as we are for not advancing I think our program has a lot to be proud of,” Cooley said.

The team will now await their opponent in the NIT tournament. It is great to play in a national prestige tournament, but well short of the team’s NCAA goals. “I’m extremely proud that we are a postseason team. But coming into the season that clearly not our goal. It never was our goal,” Cooley said.

It just seemed destined to watch the Stags hold up the championship trophy and cut down the nets they have spent an entire season glaring at. But the NIT is a step above their CIT appearance last season. It just wasn’t supposed to end like this.

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