ALBANY, N.Y. — Fairfield came out with energy early, but Monmouth overpowered them in the first MAAC semifinal game at the Times Union Center to take a 76-63 victory on Sunday afternoon.
With the win the Hawks reach their first MAAC championship game in school history.
Micah Seaborn led the Hawks with 17 points and Justin Robinson, after scoring just nine points on Friday night, helped lead the way with 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
Of course the surprise on Sunday was that senior Deon Jones returned to the starting lineup after missing the last six games with a hand injury. He finished the game with nine points, seven rebounds and three assists.
“I am so happy for Deon Jones and his family that he’s able to play again,” Monmouth head coach King Rice said. “For him, what he’s done and meant to Monmouth University, to not be out there at the end of his senior year was hard to take and it’s a credit to him, our doctors and Vanessa Sweeney, our trainer, that he kept his head in the right place.”
“Vanessa called all across the country for a hand pad that he would be able to play with and I am truly so happy for Deon, his mom and dad, his brother Jeff and the Jones family that he gets to finish his senior year on his feet.”
The Stags appeared to put the Hawks on their heels early with a 9-0 run and led by as many as nine, but Monmouth ripped off a 19-3 run to wrestle control of the game away and went on from there in the second half.
Check out the Photo Gallery from the Hawks victory and here are three thoughts from the first MAAC semifinal game:
Deon Jones Looking Great, Cast and All: 20 minutes before the game started, King Rice was talking to a warming up Deon Rice near midcourt. He had made his message clear.
Jones, who had practiced on Thursday but did not play on Friday, was ready to go after missing six games with a hand injury. Rice told the team that he would be starting the redshirt senior and going to him as soon as the game’s first play.
“I think, especially a senior missing time, he’s been here with us and knows what we want he’s getting right back in there as soon as he’s available,” Rice said. “Today I told them, I said, ‘yo brother we’re coming to you first, we’re going to find out what you can do and what you can’t do’, then we turned it over twice so he didn’t show us and okay, missed your turn Deon, we’re going with Justin for a while.”
After a turnover by Robinson on the first possession of the game, Jones tried a runner that rolled out and missed a three-pointer in the corner. He had an assist on Seaborn’s first three-pointer early in the game and got going from there.
“At first just going into the game I was trying to see how it was going to feel, but once I realized it didn’t hurt at all and I can just shoot it regular, I just relaxed,” Jones said. “I just played my normal game, so it was fine.”
Jones presence attacking not only the rim but opening up the floor helped the Hawks close the gap against the Fairfield zone late in the first half and helped build a lead as large as 23 at one point.
“I was just really happy, all I wanted to do is just play with my brothers,” Jones said. “Being out for those games I’ve been out it was really tough, especially being a senior, so just being back out there it felt great.”
As the game wore on the senior took to the game more aggressively and drove the ball as the Hawks continued to wear down the Stags.
“I think he realized he was not going to hurt his hands anymore and he just started attacking,” Rice said. “He flexed though and he doesn’t have that big of muscles, so I don’t really understand that plus, he’s wearing a sleeve shirt, so when you flex that they don’t see any muscles.”
Players Leading The Way For Rice’s Group: King Rice has been adamant that he lets his players dictate the way they attack during these MAAC tournament games. It might not be completely hands on like some other coaches, but a more relaxed attitude towards getting the Hawks to another NCAA tournament.
“I have to kind of stay out of their way, not panic when we get down, keep their confidence up,” Rice said. “I think I got them a little too tight last week, how I was acting and I’m kind of relaxed for the tournament and my guys are tight, so I’m trying to just get them to play basketball.”
That mentality has shown itself in different ways through their first two games, on Sunday it showed when MAAC Player of the Year Justin Robinson drew his third foul on an indiscriminate elbow to Jerome Segura near center court in the half’s final minute.
“Justin, probably right now, is probably putting some pressure on himself,” Rice said. “I told him during the game, that’s why he switched seats with Sam, I said Justin, you’ve already earned it, no one can take what happened this regular season from you, you’ve proven what you’ve proven, now just go play how you play. But he’s like coach, but I know Justin, you already earned it my man, no one can take it away.”
“Somebody plays better than you in the tournament then they’re the tournament MVP or player of the tournament, so I think that helped him relax a little bit. I think Micah getting hot helped him relax, Justin a little bit, relax and we got a lot of kids that can do a lot of things.”
The Next Hurdle Is The Hardest: The Hawks will draw Iona on Monday night, a team that has been used to being in the MAAC tournament championship game. In fact, it was the Gaels that got past Monmouth in their semifinal game last year.
Rice and his players remember that game fondly, as the Gaels dispatched of the Hawks and set a tournament record for three-pointers made in a game.
“I’m really excited,” Jones said. “It’s my senior year and being in the MAAC championship it’s wonderful. Last year, we lost in the semifinals and that really hurt us, so now we want to get back and win it this year.”
Seaborn, who had 17 on Sunday, said it would be hard for him to sleep prior to their Monday meeting with the Gaels.
“It’s going to be hard for me to sleep tonight, I know that for sure, it’s going to be a big game tomorrow and I’m going to try to control my emotions as much as possible,” Seaborn said. “I know it’s a big game and try to approach it like we’ve approached every other game this season. We’ve been in a lot of big games this season, it’s a big game for a lot of reasons.”
Seaborn added that they have been in plenty of big games this season. Whether it’s on the road at UCLA to open the season, at Georgetown or in the AdvoCare Invitational, the Hawks have had an answer on every big stage. But Rice knows that this will be different.
“I’m going to do my best to get these guys to understand this game tomorrow will be harder than any one of those high major games that we played,” Rice said. “Last year in the semifinal Iona ramped it up to a level that we have never been to, then I watched that final Manhattan, Iona and they went to a whole other level.”
“Our high major games were early in the year, people trying to find out who they are, everybody knows who’s going to be in here tomorrow and this game will be much harder for our kids than any one of those games were earlier in the year.”
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.