Friday, December 10, 2010

Fairfield-Siena Game a Showcase for Stags

The showdown between the preseason choices to be the conference's best team instead became a showcase for a squad that, now, can stake a legitimate claim on being No. 1 in the MAAC.

That would be Fairfield, which administered a decisive 72-55 victory over Siena on the Saints' home Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.

The outcome snapped Siena's 28-game homecourt winning streak against MAAC opponents.

The winners' dominance showed up mostly in the paint where it had 36 rebounds to just 22 for Siena, and where the Stags' defense, much of it administered by 7-foot-0 junior center Ryan Olander, a defense that limited Siena's starting center and power forward to seven total points.

All seven of those points came from Siena's Player of the Year candidate senior center Ryan Rossiter, whose 7-point, 7-rebound effort was his worst production of the current season by far. Siena's starting power forward O.D. Anosike went scoreless and grabbed just a single rebound in 23 minutes of playing time.

Siena played without starting small forward Owen Wignot (concussion-like symptoms) and with its top point guard, freshman Rakeem Brookins, attempting to play through a severe stomach virus.

But Fairfield made the trip without its top reserve, senior forward Greg Nero.

And, unless the return of Wignot to the lineup and Brookins to full health suddenly solve a myriad of Siena's growing pains, then Friday's contest was also this: A meeting of MAAC dominance past (Siena) vs. the present and, likely, foreseeable future (Fairfield).

The meeting between the teams was the first since last season's conference tournament championship game in which Siena needed to rally from 16 points down in the second half before winning in overtime.

Did that outcome weigh on the minds of Fairfield's players?

When Stags' standout sophomore guard Derek Needham was asked about that, Fairfield coach Ed Cooley wouldn't even allow his player to deliver an answer.

"Not a factor," said Cooley, answering the question poised to Needham. "We don't care about last year. We lost an opportunity ... it passed us by. This is a new year. We're a better team than last year, and that (Siena) was a different team.

"This was a league game ... it's a long year. We're just trying to get better."

Fairfield could hardly have been better than it was when it counted Friday night.

After Siena pulled within four, 43-39, with 12:30 remaining Fairfield went on a 15-1 run for a 58-40 lead and Siena played most of its reserves after that.

Needham finished with 12 points and eight assists, senior forward Warren Edney had a game-high 16 points, Olander had 11 points and sophomore guard Colin Nickerson had 10 points and nine rebounds.

From the looks of one game, Fairfield has a strong enough inside game (Olander), particularly on the defensive end; enough scorers (Edney, Yorel Hawkins, Needham and Nickerson) and depth (it went nine deep against Siena, and that was without Nero).

Mostly, though, Fairfield has arguably the best backcourt in the league in the sophomore N&N tandem, Needham and Nickerson.

Nickerson is an understated, mistake-free (one turnover in 28 minutes, 4-of-5 shooting) off-guard, while Needham is the spectacular, dynamic point guard whose five first-half turnovers against a single assist not only enabled Siena to keep things close but earned him a seat on the bench for a spell.

In the second half Needham had seven assists against two turnovers while scoring 10 points.

Apart from Nero, Fairfield is also relatively healthy for the first time in three seasons. But, Cooley points to an oft-overlooked portion of his team's play for Friday's success.

"During the summer I knew we had to improve on the defensive end and we worked hard, as coaches, to come up with a better defensive scheme," said Cooley. "We just preached team defense."

On Friday that defense gave Siena problems all night and the Saints' 55 points was their lowest output of the season.

"I thought that Fairfield's defense was really good," said Siena coach Mitch Buonaguro. "I have not seen inside defense like that all year. We had problems getting to the rim. They took Ryan Rossiter out of the game and held O.D. Anosike to no points. We need more production from our 4 and 5 positions to win a game like this.

"They played a defense that was physical and our big guys were a non-factor. That's our strength, and that's the thing they obviously took away. Olander played as well in this game as I've ever seen him play. More teams are going to try to take Rossiter out of the game, and we have to find someone else to score."

Buonaguro has called his team a work in progress often this season, and it's also a team in transition as it tries to find ways to succeed after losing key players that helped bring the program to league championships in each of the past three seasons.

On an early season showdown in Albany, though, it's clear that Siena is still trying to figure things out.

Fairfield, on the other hand, looks like it has already done that. And, on this night, there was little doubt about which team is the best in the MAAC for now.

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