Fairfield had a one-point lead with time running out when it executed a beautiful out of bounds play to seal a 69-66 comeback win over Monmouth Saturday afternoon on Senior Day.
Tyler Nelson, who was playing his final game at Webster Bank Arena, initially broke toward the ball, but instead reversed direction and got a perfect baseball pass from Wassef Methnani. It was so good that Nelson’s defender fell down, leaving Nelson alone to lay the ball in.
Only he didn’t. He paused at the rim and peeked at the clock, knowing that it would stop as soon as he scored. He killed three seconds before the Hawks got to him, and after he finally finished his layup, all Ray Salnave could do was take a desperation three at the other end as the Stags won their fourth straight to get back to 9-9 in conference after a 2-7 start.
“As I was running down, the kid tripped over my feet, so when I caught it, my first instinct was to wait because I know there was only a couple of seconds left on the clock, and I didn’t want to give them more time,” Nelson said.
Having passed Tony George (1983-86 and was in attendance Saturday) as Fairfield’s all-time leading scorer last week, Nelson now has 2,073 career points, and Saturday’s performance summed up his career very well. Quiet for large parts of it, and often keyed on for large portions of the afternoon. Yet by the end, he made enough adjustments to finish with 23 points and lead his team back from an 11-point second half deficit to beat the defending MAAC regular season champions. When Monmouth took away most of his options in the first half, Nelson adjusted his pick-and-rolls with Jonathan Kasibabu to allow Fairfield to seemingly score at will down the stretch.
“It’s so good to run those with Tyler Nelson because he really knows how to find me,” Kasibabu said. “It’s always like that a second later when they don’t expect it to be there, and he knows when to find me, and I’m like, ‘My man’.”
And then, of course, there was that final play which put on full display an off-the-charts Basketball IQ that may be impossible for Fairfield to replace next season.
In the end, Nelson will receive the fate of so many mid-major stars over the years, his exploits will be remembered fondly at Fairfield, where he will likely have a banner raised (hopefully on campus eventually) in his honor and the record books will forever bear his name. He led a team that was 5-27 in his freshman season to three straight campaigns of .500 or better in the MAAC. Yet, with the season Isaiah Reese is having at Canisius, Nelson will likely never be MAAC Player of the Year or have his team even appear in the conference final (and the accompanying national television appearance).
“I’m worn out with superlatives for Tyler, not because they don’t count, but what is there left to say about the guy?,” Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. “I hope and pray that I have an opportunity to coach for a long time and maybe I’ll come across another player like him. I had some really good ones at Princeton and was fortunate to coach some good ones at Georgetown as an assistant, but I don’t know if any are better than him, from where he started to where he’s finishing up. He’s been an absolute dream.”
But if there is a place for our little website, it’s to amplify the wonderful accomplishments of a player like Tyler Nelson, who was a joy to watch from the time he stepped on campus to the finish of his storied career, probably this weekend in Albany (although he certainly hopes not).
“Definitely now because we have a couple of days off until the MAAC Tournament, I can reflect, but I’m more focused on where we are in the seedings for Albany and what we can do there,” Nelson said.
What else did we learn Saturday in Bridgeport?:
1) Lost season for Monmouth
In many ways, Saturday summed up Monmouth’s season extremely well. Micah Seaborn, limited by injuries and foul trouble (eventually fouling out), tallied only two points and zero field goals in 18 minutes. And yet the Hawks (11-19, 7-11) led 59-48 with less than 6 minutes left and appeared in total control despite their shortcomings.
Yet a team and coach who was 35-5 in the MAAC in the previous two seasons showed no confidence and made several questionable decisions, including pulling the ball out and running the shot clock down soon after. Then they never adjusted to the Nelson-Kasibabu pick and rolls and were soon on the end of yet another tough loss.
It was always going to be darn near impossible to match the exploits of the last couple of seasons, and who knows what will happen next week in Albany, but Monmouth looked like a team beaten down by the campaign, starting with a brutal non-conference slate.
And Rice was no different.
“It’s the (MAAC) Tournament,” Rice said. “We’ll prepare like we always do and we’ll be ready on Thursday, whoever we see.”
2) As for the distant future….
Disturbing seasons aside, providing they can sort out their leadership and injury issues, Monmouth shouldn’t be down for too long. Rice is recruiting at a higher level than most MAAC teams, and there was plenty of talent on display for the Hawks, who were especially hurt by a high turnover rate (20.8%, 303rd) and fouling way too much (322nd in defensive FT rate). As they found out the hard way, replacing Justin Robinson ws not just about all the things he did on the court, but his leadership as well.
As for Fairfield, it’s likely going to be a little bit tougher without Nelson. Kasibabu will return and Aidas Kavaliauskas logged solid minutes at point guard backing up Jerome Segura, but there will be work to be done to make Fairfield a MAAC contender in the coming years. Is the next Tyler Nelson out there somewhere?
3) Predicting the MAAC Tournament
Until the Quinnipiac-Manhattan game is finished Sunday night, the seedings won’t be set, and honestly picking the winner of the MAAC has been a fairly fruitless endeavor over the years. It’s worth noting how consistent Canisius has been this season in conference play after it wasn’t in the non-conference campaign, although it has lost in the city of Albany twice already this season.
Iona seems a logical favorite despite the seeds not indicating that, but it would have to get through Manhattan, likely Canisius, and Rider to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight. But it seems like as good a pick as any.