Three Thoughts: Fairfield 56, Quinnipiac 52 (OT) (Fairfield edition)

Monday was indeed very blue for Fairfield, who lost a big lead at home to Bucknell and lost brutally in overtime. At that time, they were 2-5, losers of five of six, and were staring at Manhattan and Quinnipiac to open the MAAC season, surely with visions of last season’s 7-25 (and 4-16 in MAAC play) record dancing in their heads.

 Tuesday was gray and Wednesday, too, as Fairfield struggled to make things right in practice. But by the second half on Friday, Fairfield fans were able to be in love with their team as they handled Manhattan fairly easily in the MAAC opener. By Sunday, the Stags were atop the conference as again they went to overtime, but this time put the brutal loss on Quinnipiac, 56-52, even after the three big men that play the most minutes for them had all fouled out.

“We had to have a team meeting,” senior Steve Johnston – who came off the bench to log 33 minutes and score 14 points – said. “We all felt like we should have won Monday. We talked after that game about what guys need to do to help us win those tough games. We had a great week of practice, and we made plays at the end, and we pulled through in overtime this time. We learned from our mistakes, and we just have to keep progressing forward.”

Here are my thoughts on the resurgent Stags, who are halfway to last year’s MAAC win total on Dec. 7: Hearst tries to tie the game at the end of overtime, but Steve Johnston runs away with the ball and the win)

1. Fairfield has the size and athleticism to compete with anyone in the MAAC – In fact (although Rider is throwing some big guys this season), this game might have featured the two most imposing frontcourts in the MAAC. It’s a strange dynamic, really, all three big guys fouled out in a combined 49 minutes and only grabbed seven rebounds combined. Yet they clogged the middle and made it tough on Ousmane Drame and Justin Harris (even though they lost the battle of the boards, 51-31). Marcus Gilbert was given the assignment of stopping Zaid Hearst while he was in and his length gave Hearst trouble, most of Hearst’s 20 came when he was out of the game or Fairfield was in a zone. They haven’t been playing at a high pace, but the Stags have help three of their last four opponents in the 50s and the one that wasn’t was Bucknell, who scored 18 points in the first half and had to score 25 in overtime (yes, one) to get to 72. “I think we did a really good job against Drame,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “Hearst didn’t play heavy minutes in the first half and it let us get control of the game.”

2. But is there enough offense going forward? –  Hearst did everything for Quinnipiac, including holding Marcus Gilbert to just six points before he hit his only three-pointer of the afternoon to tie the game with two seconds left in regulation. Johnston tried to fill the void and Mike Kirkland had a huge overtime for the Stags, but Fairfield led 26-12 with 1:30 left in the first half and scored only six points in the next 12 minutes before finally hitting a couple of shots just as Quinnipiac looked like it was taking over the game. Johnston, Kirkland, and others will need to keep producing. “This is a really good win, I’m not going to be disappointed in anything right now,” Johnson said. “There are places to improve certainly, but these guys played awesome the last two games, so I’m very proud of them.”

3. Why not Fairfield, though? – The Stags were picked ahead of only Canisius and Niagara in the MAAC preseason poll, and no one (I don’t think) is predicting them to go 20-0 in the conference, but in an extremely balanced MAAC, who knows? Their plight reminds me a lot of Canisius the last couple of seasons, with too much credit being given to the past and not the present. “We’re focused on trying to make winning plays,” Johnson said. “I’m talking about charges, loose balls, boxing out. We have talent. We have a talented team. No one’s talking about us, but when we focus on those winning plays, then I think the talent matches the winning, and I think we can win a lot of conference games.”

(There was a scuffle at the conclusion of the game, but cooler heads prevailed quickly.)

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