Sunday, March 7, 2010

Unlikely Stags Vs. Siena For Men's Crown

Siena might have an active 37-game winning streak on its Times Union Center home court, the site of Monday night's MAAC tournament championship game with Fairfield, but that seeming advantage is meaningless to the Stags.

"We're just happy to be here," said Fairfield coach Ed Cooley, whose team earned its first championship game berth since the 2002-03 season. "We can play this game on the moon, on the streets ...we'll play hubcap to hubcap. They (Siena) want to host it, God bless them. We want to be the host busters."

Fairfield gets its chance Monday at 7 p.m. in a nationally televised contest (ESPN2), likely before a Siena-partial crowd of more than 10,000.

Siena got to Monday's championship contest with a 72-62 victory over Rider in Sunday's other semifinal-round contest.

The Saints' 37-game home winning streak dates back to midway through the 2007-08 season. They have won the MAAC tournament in each of the past two seasons with both events being played here.

But the Stags haven't exactly been devoid of success in this building.

Since Siena's current Siena class has been at the Loudonville school, Fairfield has won twice in Albany, a 72-67 victory during the 2006-07 season and a 53-53 victory during the 2007-08 season.

Since the second of those two Fairfield victories over Siena, only two other teams, Rider and Loyola later in the 20007-08 season, have beaten the Saints on their home court.

Fairfield nearly ended the Saints' home-court streak earlier this season, suffering a 69-67 loss at the Times Union Center on Feb. 8.

"We hope to do something different against Siena this time ... we lost to them in both meetings this year," said Cooley. "We know we're playing against a great team, but we felt we got a little closer each time we played them.

"We've got to pitch a perfect game to give ourselves a chance at the end. But, all we talked about this weekend was that we wanted an opportunity, and that was an opportunity to play on Monday night (in the event's championship game)."

The opportunity came to fruition after the Stags rallied from a 58-51 deficit with 7:16 remaining in the form of a 14-1 run that gave them a 64-59 advantage with 1:28 left to play. After that, Niagara never had a possession with a chance to tie the game up again.

Fairfield's 6-foot-9, 250-pound senior center Anthony Johnson literally came up the biggest Stag in the closing run with 11 points in the game's final 10 minutes. He finished with 21 points and eight rebounds.

"At one point we were down by eight points and I looked Anthony Johnson in the eye and told him it was time for him to be dominent," said Cooley. "I told him I wasn't ready to send him back to Lake Wales (Florida., Johnson's home) yet, and added a few other choice words.

"He looked me back in the eye and said `I got your back, coach'. When someone like him says he's got your back, you have to believe in him. When he says something like that he gives me energy."

No matter the championship game's outcome, Fairfield's season has been out of storybook with a morale of achieving success despite adversity.

The Stags played this season without two expected starters, forwards Greg Nero and Warren Edney, and lost a third starter when swingman Yorel Hawkins was lost at midseason with a knee injury.

In that respect, things this year weren't so different from a year ago when the program also suffered considerable injury losses, including losing Johnson at midseason with blood clot issues.

"What we went through last year definitely helped us grow as a coaching staff," said Cooley. "When things started happening again this year, it was like we've been there and have done that."

Having a healthy Johnson, though, gave the Stags one of the conference's best inside players and precocious freshman guard Derek Needham took over running the point and adding considerable offensive punch. Needham is one of just four freshman in MAAC history to average at least 15 points per game.

"I knew he was going to help us the first day I got on the court with him this summer," said Johnson.

It probably wasn't as easy to predict Fairfield would be this good as a team, though.

Fairfield is now 22-9 overall, posting its first 20-victory season since 1995-96.

In Siena, though, it faces an opponent making its fourth consecutive appearance in the MAAC title game. Only Iona, with teams in the mid-1980s; and Manhattan, with teams in the mid-1980s, has also done that. A victory on Monday would give the Saints their third straight NCAA berth, an accomplishment only La Salle teams of 1987-88, 1988-89 and 1989-90 has ever accomplished.

Siena earned its way to the championshipo game by overcoming a 48-44 deficit with 12:25 remaining with a 16-0 run over the next five minutes of play.

Point guard Ronald Moore's 3-pointer from the corner gave the Saints a 59-48 edge with 7:45 remaining and served well as the proverbial "dagger."

"That basket might have been the key," said Rider coach Tommy Dempsey. "Everyone knows he (Moore) hasn't been able to put the ball in the basket this year, especially from three-point range. But, he gets that big one down the stretch. He drainsthat and it energizes his team and everyone in the building."

Moore entered the contest shooting .306 percent from the floor and .197 percent from beyond the bonus stripe. But, in Sunday's contest, he had 15 pints on 5-of-10 shooting, including a perfect 2-for-2 on three-point attempts.

Teammates Alex Franklin and Clarence Jackson had 18 and 17 points, while Ryan Rossiter finished with 18 rebounds.


Last season's all-time tournament attendance record of 42,890 will likely be broken this season.

The crowd count through Sunday's games is currently at 42,890. A turnout of a little less than 8,000 would break last year's record of 50,806.

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