ALBANY, N.Y. — Fairfield had not played in a game all season where they failed to make a second half three-pointer, but with just over a minute left and a three-point lead, they were in danger of doing so.
Stags senior Marcus Gilbert shook Chazz Patterson, stepped back and drilled a three-pointer near the bench to give Fairfield a five point lead with 34.7 seconds left.
“He drew up a play and we just wanted to execute to a ’T’ and I feel like we did that,” Gilbert, who had a game-high 20 points, said. “I was very poised on the wing and he was just waiting for me to come up and he gave it to me. He trusted me and I just knocked down the shot.”
The 6’5” senior lingered as he made the shot and the Stags would not give up another basket from there. Gilbert led a late second run out that led to a two-hand dunk from Matija Milin at the buzzer to turn a close game into a 64-55 victory in the MAAC tournament quarterfinals on Saturday night.
It is Gilbert’s third win in his four year career with the Stags, the last came on March 9, 2013 when Gilbert was a freshman and they picked up their 19th victory in a quarterfinal game against Rider. On Saturday night the Stags earned their 19th win, after their last two seasons saw them win a combined 14 games.
“I remember last year it was a different feeling and I’m just overwhelmed with how much these guys continue to surprise me and make me proud,” head coach Sydney Johnson said afterwords. “I have three beautiful kids of my own, but I look at these guys and, 17 of them, they’re like sons to me.”
“I’m not aways easy on them, but I do love them and I try to challenge them and they’ve responded time and time and time again. We came up here pretty confident, in terms of our work ethic and that’s what the emotion was, it’s a different feeling last year, this feeling is phenomenal and I’m just so proud of how they worked so hard and bought in to what we’re trying to do. It’s overwhelming at times when I think about it.”
Here are three thoughts from the Stags win on Saturday night that locks them up with Monmouth on Sunday afternoon:
Stags Learn To Win Without Their Running, Or Shooting Rather: The new fast-paced Stags have been about one thing: offense. Tonight it was hardly about that, when a lead that ballooned to 16 suddenly became a tight contest against a physical grind it out team in Saint Peter’s.
Fairfield did not hit a three-pointer in the second half until Gilbert’s heroics, and even the 6’5” senior was limited in the final 20 minutes: his only points in the half came on the clutch triple. But even through the struggles, making just 41.4% of their field goals and being limited offensively, the Stags found a way to win
“I thought they brought the best out of us,” Johnson said. “We had to give our best effort, we talked a lot about that. That didn’t mean we were going to be perfect, but just we were going to play extremely, extremely hard in order to try to will ourselves to a win, I thought we did that tonight.”
Hard Lesson For Saint Peter’s: Head coach John Dunne knew it. As the Peacocks continued to get down in the first half, he tried to stop the bleeding by calling timeout with 6:09 left down 31-18. He ended up using another timeout a minute later when Gilbert threw down a one-handed dunk after a sharp cut in the lane and a pass to set it up by Matija Milin.
“They came out with a fire and an energy about them tonight that really was impressive,” Dunne said. “I don’t feel that we matched that energy until maybe 10 or so minutes to go in the game, by then it was just a little too late.”
“We had a mountain to climb, but we have to tip our hats to those guys, they made some big shots down the stretch and they just played with a desire about them that was really impressive.”
Saint Peter’s responded in the second half, even after getting down by as many as 16, they made a 15-4 run, but could not overcome the deficit. The Peacocks were off at times, turning the ball over 12 times but never found their energy until mounting a second half comeback.
“I think we came out kind of slow, but we picked it up during the second half, but I guess it was a little too late,” junior Quadir Welton, who led the team with 16 points and 10 rebounds, said.
Kasibabu Big On the Court, Not In the Box Score: For a freshman Jonathan Kasibabu sure was intimidating to even Saint Peter’s guards and forwards. Even though the 6’8” forward finished with seven points, seven rebounds and four blocks, it felt like plenty more than that. Peacocks were hesitant to drive in the lane, but when they did they found the freshman to contest shots.
“He’s a force down there,” Gilbert said. “He does a lot things that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, boxing out, he’s a great rebounder as well and he uses his body well. He does a lot of things that really help the team win.”
Even offensively, the key reason Gilbert got going early was using screens set by the freshman. Kasibabu handed off to Gilbert and shielded him off from a defender as he drained a three from the right wing to put the Stags up 31-18 and prompt Saint Peter’s to go over their game plan once again. If they are to go against Monmouth’s front line, they will need more from the freshman to be a presence that he has built up to be down the stretch.
“He works hard and he’s always out there giving a great effort, practices and games,” Tyler Nelson, who had 15 points, said of Kasibabu. “I think the thing about him is, it’s really been paying off for him these past few games. He’s been playing hard, stepping up, making huge defensive plays for us and he’s still young. He’s only a freshman, so I think he has a lot of room to grow there.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.