A mere eleven days after Fairfield squandered a 14 point second half lead against in-state rival Quinnipiac, the Stags nearly outdid themselves by letting a 16 point advantage slip away on the Bobcats’ home court. However, the heroics of Tyler Nelson and Jerry Johnson Jr. helped Fairfield avoid disaster and avenge their previous loss with an 89-86 overtime victory in Hamden Friday night.
Thanks to a 42-point first frame in which they shot over 47% from the field, the Stags took a 12 point lead into the locker rooms. Nelson, acting as a facilitator while the focal point of the Bobcats’ defense, matched a career high with 10 assists in the first twenty minutes.
“They were doubling me, and I was just finding guys under the basket for easy layups,” Nelson said after the game. “It’s something I’ve got to keep doing.”
Senior forward Amadou Sidibe, who recorded a double-double in the first half alone, opened the second stanza with a pair of buckets, pushing the Fairfield advantage to its largest of the night at 16.
Jerome Segura’s layup with 5:47 remaining made it a 12 point lead entering the home stretch, but the Stags would go without another field goal until the game’s final second. Over that time frame, Quinnipiac put together a 16-1 rally, grabbing the lead in the final minute on a Peter Kiss layup and pushing its own advantage to three with nine seconds remaining on a pair of Kiss free throws.
Faced with the strategic choice of playing out the final possession or sending Fairfield to the line, Quinnipiac head coach Tom Moore chose to foul, sending Curtis Cobb to the charity stripe where he knocked down both shots.
After Phil Winston made one of two at the other end, Nelson came through in the clutch with a leaping layup to knot the score at 78 with just 0.1 left on the clock.
“We were really just trying to get the ball into anyone that was open,” Nelson said of the final sequence in regulation. “We were just trying to go the length of the court and get a layup. Curtis took the ball out of bounds, so he made a smart play throwing it up ahead to Amadou at the foul line on the opposite end. I was being face-guarded, so I just beat my guy down the floor, caught it on the run and luckily got to the rim.”
The Stags outscored Quinnipiac 11-8 in overtime thanks to an eight-point outburst from Johnson, whose runner put Fairfield up by five with 1:23 remaining. The Bobcats pulled within two late and had an opportunity to tie or take the lead in the final seconds, but as Moore pled for one of his players to call timeout, Johnson stripped the ball off Kiss.
“He’s hyper-competitive and he’s really locked in in that situation,” Moore said of Kiss, who ended the night with 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists. “I would have liked to set something up, but it didn’t happen and I trust him to make a play.”
Johnson added the game’s final point at the charity stripe, and Kiss’ last-chance three to tie fell off the mark, leaving the Stags victorious for the ninth time in league play.
Nelson led the Stags with 24 points along with 12 assists and six rebounds. Sidibe ended the night with 16 points and 12 boards. Quinnipiac’s Mikey Dixon matched Nelson with 24 points and completed his first career double-double with 11 rebounds. Chaise Daniels added 18.
Here are four thoughts from Friday night in Connecticut:
Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t – Up three late in regulation, Moore chose to send the Stags to the free throw line rather than have his team defend a last-second possession. The decision ultimately backfired, but two years ago Moore found himself in an identical position, chose the other path, and ended up with the same result.
In the final seconds of a tight contest against Fairfield in December 2014, Quinnipiac led by three after hitting one of two from the free throw line. That day, it was then-junior Marcus Gilbert who buried a deep jumper from just in front of the Fairfield bench to send the game to overtime, where the Stags won 56-52.
“I still remember Gilbert’s three in front of their bench when we didn’t foul,” Moore said after Friday’s loss, recalling that previous contest. “When he took it with Ousmane [Drame] in his face in front of their bench, it looked to me like it had no shot of going in. It might have banked in.”
The decision whether to foul or defend when up three late in a game remains one of the most hotly-debated topics within college basketball circles. Now thanks to Nelson’s late-game heroics, the Stags have gotten the better of the Bobcats in both situations.
Family Matters – Jerry Johnson Jr. played the hero for Fairfield in overtime, but the sophomore found it difficult to gather his emotions before the game, which was played on the one-year anniversary of his father’s passing.
“We had shootaround this morning and I didn’t even participate,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t even leave the locker room, I was just bawling out crying. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to play good today, but my dad, he has his hand on me right now.”
“He has a beautiful family back home, but he’s also got a family here,” head coach Sydney Johnson added. “It’s really nice that he had a game like today and we were able to squeak out a win to give him something that he can smile about on a pretty emotional day today.”
Johnson’s 19 points were the second-most of his season. He previously set a career high with 26 at Iona last month. With his late-game outburst, he turned the tables on Quinnipiac’s Kiss who knocked down the winning basked in the final seconds of the teams’ first meeting. The two were once teammates at Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts.
“This time, I just couldn’t sit back and just watch anymore; I had to take action,” Johnson said of his overtime run, recalling Kiss’ late bucket in the first meeting. “[Pete] and I have a close relationship. We talk before the game, and after the game it’s all love.”
Call It A Rivalry – Last Monday, each side was hesitant to admit the Fairfield/Quinnipiac series had reached the level of a rivalry. This time around, Sydney Johnson used the term in the immediate aftermath.
“It’s a rivalry game, it’s certainly become that,” Johnson said after the win. “There’s a lot of energy between the players. For the coaches I know there’s a world of respect on both ends, but these young men on both sides seem to play up. It’s becoming something special.”
The series is still in its infancy, with just nine games between the schools all-time. They first met to open the 2011 season in the Connecticut 6 at Mohegan Sun, and have matched up twice a year since Quinnipiac joined the MAAC in 2013.
Curiously, home court has been difficult to defend. The road team has captured each of the last six games in the series, and the last three in Hamden have all gone to overtime.
Road to the Bye – With the win, Fairfield has solidified its position as a contender for a first round bye in the upcoming conference tournament. The Stags improved their MAAC record to 9-7 with four games left to play, just a half game behind Siena and Canisius for the final spots in the league’s top five.
With a game in hand on those two, Fairfield controls its own fate, but faces a daunting stretch schedule. Their remaining opponents possess a combined 42-26 record, good for a .618 winning percentage.
The Stags play three of their final four on the road, and their only home contest comes against Monmouth, which wrapped up its second consecutive regular season title earlier this week.
Prior to their meeting with Monmouth, the Stags travel to Saint Peter’s on Sunday afternoon, and will then finish the season with the annual trip to Buffalo, where they will have an opportunity to pull past Canisius before ending the season at Niagara.
Sydney Johnson, unconcerned with standings, simply wants his team to focus on one thing in the road ahead: defense.
“I don’t even worry about that stuff,” Johnson said in regard to talk of standings and byes. “That hasn’t gotten us to this point. It’s so hard to win in this league and what my guys have committed to is defending when we get in the gym together. The biggest thing for us is defense, defense, defense every time we come together.”
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.