As the buzzer sounded to end the first half of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship Game in Atlantic City last Saturday evening, the somewhat stunned contingent of Fairfield faithful did their best to shout words of encouragement down to the sideline. 

Over the shoulder of each Stags player as they made their trot into the locker room was the jumbotron of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, displaying the result of a demoralizing first 20 minutes of play. The second-seeded Niagara Purple Eagles led by a score of 33-22, the 11 point halftime deficit the largest faced by the Stags in any game throughout their historic then 30-1 season. 

“The frustration and the excitement of the moment I think got to us a little bit,” said assistant coach Erik Johnson.

  Despite their rampant success throughout the 2023-24 campaign, moments of adversity and unease haven’t been completely foreign to the Stags. Most notable was their February 17 road trip to Mount St. Mary’s, where the team trailed for almost the whole game before a last second layup from Emina Selimovic ‘25 sealed a 61-59 win.

But that game simply didn’t compare in magnitude to the situation staring down the Stags on Saturday, with a conference title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. And it maybe shouldn’t have been such a surprise, either. At 28-1 to start the week, and nationally ranked as the number 25 team in the country for the first time in program history, the target was squarely on the back of the Stags heading into Atlantic City, during the time of year where every win gets that much tougher to take home. 

“Everybody gives us their best shot,” Johnson said. “We know that because of our record, and all that, we’re gonna get everybody’s best game.”

There was perhaps no greater example than the Stags’ tournament opener against Rider on Wednesday afternoon. Just four days after dismantling the Broncs in an 83-54 win to close out the regular season, Fairfield found themselves in a dogfight with the conference’s number eight seed.

After a slow start in the first 10 minutes, the Stags opened quarter two with three straight baskets, including back-to-back three pointers from Meghan Andersen ‘27, and looked to be well on their way to a comfortable win after taking a nine point lead into the locker room. The Broncs had other plans.

The underdogs hung around early in the second half until a series of miscues kick started what would go on to be a 13-2 run, punctuated by a Jessika Schiffer three to knot the game at 40 several minutes into the final period. 

Of course, as the Stags have managed to do all year, they dug deep and battled back, reeling off 10 straight points of their own before a flurry of free throws from Kaety L’Amoreaux ‘27 iced the 57-51 win. The victory came in spite of the team’s single worst shooting performance of the entire season, including just 14 percent from three, over 20 points below their season average.

“Playing the first game in a new arena like that, we didn’t shoot the ball very well,” Johnson said, “but I thought we actually played well. We generated a lot of open shots, and I think if we had shot a more normal percentage for us the score would’ve looked a lot different.”

Instead, the Stags leaned on their signature suffocating defense, holding a conference opponent under 60 points for the 18th time in 21 games. Leading the way in that department was Janelle Brown ‘24, who had three steals and a block to go along with 16 points on the offensive end. L’Amoreaux led all scorers in the game with 19.

“We won because we defended,” Johnson said. “We really worked like crazy, I thought our pressure was excellent, our discipline was quite good, and our team’s built to be able to win in different ways.”

That led to Friday’s semifinal matchup with Canisius. Far and away the Stags’ least stressful outing of the week, they used a balanced performance with much improved shooting and more lockdown defense, controlling the game from start to finish in a 77-64 win.

Most notable was their defensive game plan against Golden Griffins star forward Sisi Eleko. A unanimous first team all-conference pick, Eleko led the conference in both scoring and rebounding in the regular season. On Friday though, the Stags held her to just four points and four rebounds, and she fouled out of the game midway through the fourth quarter.

“Our defense really changed the game in terms of being able to pressure the perimeter and swarm the interior,” Johnson said, “and because we don’t have as much size, and [Eleko]’s bigger than our players, we have to be able to do both.”

The better shooting numbers on the offensive end helped five Stags reach double figures, led by Brown with 19 points. Andersen chipped in with 16, followed by Selimovic and Kendall McGruder ‘25 with 11 apiece. Graduate student Nicole Gallagher rounded out the quintet with 10.

So as the team exited the locker room Saturday afternoon, they faced their deficit head on with one thought in their minds: they had faced adversity before, and they would conquer it again. 

Shots that didn’t go down in the first half finally started to fall, with Brown in particular hitting two big threes to jolt the crowd back to life. They were much more methodical in dissecting Niagara’s overwhelming defensive pressure, surrendering just 10 turnovers after giving up 17 in the first half. 

Slowly, bucket by bucket, they crawled their way back into the game, and with just under two minutes left in regulation, Brown split two defenders in the paint for a layup that gave the Stags their first lead of the game at 57-56.

After an exchange of free throws tied the game, the Stags had an opportunity to run out the clock and take the last shot. But then, disaster struck. Brown was called for an offensive foul while driving to the rim, resulting not just in a turnover that gave Niagara a chance to win, but in a fifth foul for Brown, knocking her out of the game.

The Stags would prevent the Purple Eagles from getting a shot up to end regulation, but they were now entering overtime with the conference player of the year and their de facto leader on the bench. 

“That was something we struggled with last year. If you look at our overtime losses, most of them were when [Brown] fouled out,” Johnson said. “But what makes her the player of the year in the conference is that she has learned to be a really good point guard, she’s unselfish… she found ways to be able to contribute to our win even though she fouled out of the game.”

Brown’s impact was evident in every huddle and timeout on the sideline, showing no frustration or anger and instead using her energy to pump up the team.

The result was a statement overtime performance to cap off what was a statement year for the Stags. They scored the first nine points of the extra period, including a cold-blooded corner three from Gallagher that had Boardwalk Hall ready to explode. 

Just a few minutes later, the game ended in a final score of 70-62 for the Stags, and the celebration at midcourt was well underway.

“It’s really hard to win 29 games in a row, I mean, it’s remarkable,” Johnson said. “I think the narrative people are worried about is, ‘Oh you won all these games but you can’t do it on the big stage’… so being able to do it is validation that this team’s for real and this team can do it on the big stage.”

Now, the Stags find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in program history and the second time in the last three years. There, they’ll match up with the fourth-seeded Indiana Hoosiers out of the Big Ten.

But no matter what the outcome, they’ll still have a new championship banner to hang in the rafters of Mahoney Arena to commemorate what is undoubtedly the greatest season in program history.

“Playing selfless basketball, supporting each other, working together, getting each other in the gym extra,” Johnson said. “The consistency of the wins is a byproduct of the consistency of the effort and the togetherness, and it’s fun when you get to see that from our seats as coaches every day.”

The Stags will attempt to keep their dream season going just a little bit longer when they play the Hoosiers on Saturday. Opening tip is at 1:30 P.M.   

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