Setting the Stage
With the excitement of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) basketball playoffs brewing, teams in the middle of the playoff seeding such as Fairfield are hunting for their first-round bye. With 11 members, the bottom six teams will enter a play-in round to claim a spot in the main bracket, whereas the top five teams in the standings will punch their ticket to Atlantic City, N.J. for the tournament’s festivities.
Going into this past weekend, Fairfield was in a crucial position to either continue to climb or fall short of the first-round bye with two in-conference matchups against Marist College and Manhattan College.
The Comeback Kids
To start the weekend, on Friday, Feb. 17, the men’s basketball team took to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to take on the Marist College Red Foxes, who currently sit in the penultimate slot of the MAAC standings. Their in-conference record is just 5-12, with one of those 12 losses coming at the hands of the Stags themselves on Dec. 30, 2022.
Fairfield’s high-powered offense sent the Red Foxes retreating in December, with guard TJ Long ‘25 claiming multiple individual highs. According to the official game notes, Long’s Dec. 30 game had the highest scoring performance of any Stag this season (25 points), the most amount of field goals made by an individual player this season (10), the highest number of field goal attempts (18) and finally the highest amount of three-point field goals (five) and three-point attempts (11).
This past Friday night, however, Long and his teammate, graduate student Caleb Fields, were able to replicate the commanding success of their first meeting with Marist, both slotting in 21 points of their own.
The pair’s efforts to secure the win did not come easy, however, as Marist came out of the gate with a fiery 23-8 lead, according to the game’s official recap. The Stags were able to lock down their defense and close out the first half down just one point, with a score of 32-21 going into the second frame.
According to the game’s official box score, the Stags were able to convert on exactly half of every field goal attempt they made inside the paint. From the three-point line, however, they converted on just over half, with a 53.8% three-point field goal percentage.
With a much stronger 39-point performance in the second half, the Stags decisively moved past the Marist Red Foxes, who ultimately could not catch up with Long, Fields and the powerful defense the team brought to the court.
A Chance at Revenge
Fans, families and Fairfield fanatics poured into Leo D. Mahoney Arena on the overcast afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, as the men’s basketball team opened up their second-to-last home game of the season versus Manhattan College, where they fell in a final-second heartbreak by a final score of 73-72.
Although the weekend started strong for the Stags, the same could not be said for the visiting Jaspers. According to the official Manhattan men’s basketball schedule, they entered Mahoney Arena riding the coattails of a 71-60 loss against Iona University on Friday, Feb. 17. On the other end of the court, Fairfield’s head coach Jay Young and his squad picked up their commanding 70-61 victory over Marist College on the same night.
The two MAAC competitors have faced off against each other many times throughout their respective histories. According to the official Fairfield University athletics website, the Stags and Jaspers split the difference in their two contests last season, whereas the current season has seen the Jaspers take both games to their win column.
Although their matchup on Dec. 1 saw the Jaspers slightly getting the edge over the Stags, the game was played on their home court in front of just under 600 spectators. Now, with the Red Sea in numbers just below 3,000, the atmosphere was very different, offering Fairfield a home-court advantage to exact revenge.
According to the game notes versus Manhattan, Fairfield’s scoring statistics ranked relatively low amongst their MAAC competitors. The game notes clarify that Fairfield’s field goal percentage ranks ninth out of 11 MAAC teams and tenth out of 11 in three-point field goal percentage.
However, the other side of the ball has seen production throughout the 2022-23 season. The Stags reign the best in the MAAC across multiple different metrics: scoring defense, three-point field goal defense and fewest fouls per game are their strong suits.
The Stags’ tough defense would have their second chance to square up against Manhattan’s strong offense, who has been able to convert on 43.5% of their field goals and 35% of their three-point attempts.
Young and his coaching staff employed their eighth unique starting lineup of the season, according to the game notes, which sees Fields, Jalen Leach ‘24, Allan Jeane-Rose ‘23, Makai Willis ‘25 and Supreme Cook ‘24 as the squad to take the tipoff. According to the game notes, this is the fourth time in a row that Young has sent out this specific group at the beginning of the game.
Fairfield’s starting five accounts for a significant portion of their point production. Before the game against Manhattan, starters accounted for 70.6% of their points and 71.3% of their rebounds.
A Slower Start
The game tipped off with a 7-1 start by Fairfield, who locked in on defense to create a couple of crucial stops. With Ant Nelson running the point for Manhattan, he was able to lead a six-point charge to tie the game at seven.
The first half got off to a very slow start, with the Stags and Jaspers deadlocked at seven with just 11:32 left in the first half. Although the scoring was slow to start, the fouls were not, as both Fairfield and Manhattan had ample opportunities to nail their free throws. Through just 15 minutes of the game, Fairfield was able to capitalize on all but one of their seven free throws.
At halftime, the Manhattan squad took the lead 35-27, with Cook leading the scoring effort for the Stags with eight points. He additionally tallied eight rebounds, which helped his team out-rebound the Jaspers in the first half.
The Fairfield University women’s swim and dive team shuffled out of the Red Sea and onto the court to present their MAAC championship trophy to fans in attendance. As they were honored, they posed for pictures.
Going into the second half, Fairfield continued to fight back as Cook and Long lit up the court with high-energy layups and three-point shots. Long’s multiple three-point swishes led to the Mahoney Arena crowd erupting with excitement.
With Long commanding the court and a still-impressive team-wide 87.5% free throw percentage, the game’s momentum looked to be tipping toward Fairfield’s favor.
The Final Countdown
As the score became just a three-point difference in Manhattan’s favor with 30 seconds left in the game, Fairfield was in a position to use their timeouts in order to draw up a plan to tie the game. Manhattan’s persistence looked to seal the deal, nailing a free throw to make their lead four.
To respond, Jeane-Rose rebounded and took a three-point attempt, and Leach attempted to finish the missed shot but got fouled. His three foul shot attempts would put him in the perfect–yet high-pressure–situation to tie the game. He nailed the first two shots and purposefully tossed his third off the glass for a hopeful catch-and-shoot by a rebounder to create two points.
This rebounder was Cook, who also got fouled in the process; he was granted two shots and needed to make both in order to tie the game at 73. He completed the first to make the score 73-72, but ultimately missed the final shot, which sealed the game as a Jaspers win.
“Our defense was just kind of out of sorts today,” Young stated in a postgame press conference.
Young also spoke his mind about the free throw that Cook missed at the end of the game. He shared that he wasn’t worried about the missed free throw, but more concerned with a missed steal that Cook attempted earlier in the game which earned Manhattan two points.
Overall, Young thought that his team did not bring their best offense to their game. “Our offense was fine tonight. It was not good. In the first half, it was poor,” he stated.
He also thought that the team could not get comfortable with one specific type of defense. Although he claims that this is likely the most he has switched defensive formations in a single game, there is “not a ton we’re changing right now” ahead of their upcoming opponents. In short, he is not looking to reinvent the team, but simply to clean up the small and controllable mistakes.
The Fairfield University men’s basketball team will travel to upstate New York this upcoming weekend to round out their final two road matchups versus Niagara University and Canisius College. They will close out their season with a home game at Leo D. Mahoney Arena against Quinnipiac College on March 2.