If Fairfield wasn’t coming off a 7-25 season littered with many games similar to Monday, coach Sydney Johnson probably wouldn’t have been so disturbed, and could dismiss the Stags’ collapse against Bucknell in a 72-66 overtime loss Monday as an aberration, But the normally mild-mannered Johnson (now in his fourth year at Fairfield) held his team for a good 20 minutes in the locker room after the contest to try to figure out how to finish teams off. With MAAC play opening Friday and Manhattan and Quinnipiac looming as its first two opponents, the time for experimenting is just about over and Johnson’s mixtures just haven’t produced a finished product thus far.
“It’s really painful because I thought we played very well,” Johnson said. “We played very well for about 38 minutes and we have to reward ourselves. We can’t go that long and then miss free throws and layups down the stretch.”
Meanwhile, Bucknell is another team trying to find its way the earlygoing. The Bison won 25 games for three consecutive seasons from 2010-11 to 2012-13 and went 37-5 in the Patriot League (with two NCAA appearances that would have been three if it weren’t for C.J. McCollum and Lehigh). But Mike Muscala and Bryson Johnson are not only gone, but so is Cameron Ayers, who graduated after last season’s 16-14 mark. Somehow, the Bison missed 24 of their last 27 shots to end the first half (including an 0-for-7 start by sharpshooter Chris Hass), trailied by 10 with eight minutes left (and had 31 points total at the time), never led in the second half, and still pulled out a victory. Can you see why Sydney Johnson was so upset?
Here are my thoughts:
1. It’s not easy to pinpoint how Fairfield lost – A sleeping Bucknell offense suddenly woke up, but the Stags got very tight down the stretch, hitting just one field goal in the final 7:20 and that was a banked in 15-foot jumper by Marcus Gilbert. K.J. Rose finished with a career-high 26 points (and seven rebounds), while Gilbert added 17, but when the game was on the line, there were plenty of turnovers and poor offensive sequences to allow Bucknell a chance to make the comeback.
“We need more of a balanced attack,” Johnson said. “Probably our best offensive outing this season was against South Dakota. We had four guys in double digits,” Johnson said. “We’re really trying to get the right core guys, so that we can replicate that. It seems like we’ll have one guy on and other guys off. Then the next game, two other guys are on and two other guys are off. It’s something that we’re still working on, and when we get there, we’ll be much better.”
2. Bucknell is also a work in progress – The Bison obviously struggled for much of this game, but – although they nearly won at Villanova – lost at home to Mount St. Mary’s and barely held off Maryland-Eastern Shore so far this season. Hass exploded for 32 against Villanova, but when he’s shut down, they haven’t found another reliable option. Dave Paulsen is a good coach who is used to winning, and he’ll be encouraged that freshman J.C. Show and Steven Kaspar came off the bench to hit huge shots late in the game and in overtime (Bucknell scored 18 points in the first half and 25 in the five-minute overtime period for the bizarre stat line of the day). Against an improved Patriot League with some really good athletes, the Bison will need more consistency.
“I hope this is a momentum builder,” Paulsen said. “One thing I know is that when you’re dealing with 19 and 20-year-old guys, you never know for sure what’s going to happen next, but to be able to win on the road is the mark of a good team, especially when you’re struggling and you can’t make shots, that’s the mark of a maturing team, so hopefully we’re maturing.”
3. It’s hard to project Fairfield right now – Paulsen talked about how long Fairfield was, and the Stags had 11 blocks in the game (led by Malcolm Gilbert with five), and they have plenty of guys that should be able to rebound (although the Stags had only seven offensive boards). Yet Amadou Sidibe didn’t even attempt a field goal in 20 minutes, Tyler Nelson was 1-of-9 from the field, and the Stags turned the ball over 17 times in a game that was not played at a quick pace (70 possessions in an overtime game). So the frustration for Johnson is that – with MAAC play starting – he really doesn’t know what he has, and that didn’t work out well for him last season.
“We’re at a point where we’re playing 30 good minutes, 28 good minutes tonight, but you have to play 40,” Johnson said. “Where we are right now, it’s not enough.”