Saturday, March 5, 2011

Men: Stags Win, Want Even Bigger Crowds

It was a little over two weeks ago, following a home game at the Arena at Harbor Yard, that Connecticut Post sports columnist Chris Elsberry took Fairfield basketball fans to task in print for failing to show up for home games.

That came after just 1,596, and just nine of them students, according to Elsberry's count, attended the Stags' 61-54 victory over Marist, an outcome that clinched the conference's regular-season title for Fairfield.

Fans must have been listening. Or, at least, reading since crowds since then have been significantly better. The home team drew 5,287 to a Feb. 25 game against Siena, its largest-ever attendance figure for a game at the Bridgeport, Ct., arena.

And, in Saturday's rematch with Marist, in the quarterfinals of the conference's post-season tournament on Saturday, the crowd was just slightly below that figure at 5,235.

But the arena was loud, and the crowd supportive and mostly clad in Fairfield red (although that's also Marist's colors).

The home team takes any advantage it can at tournament time, and continued support here for his team's run in the MAAC event on his court is something Fairfield coach Ed Cooley was lobbying for after his team's with-ease 55-31 victory over the Red Foxes Saturday.

"I hope we get 15,000 people out for our games, and the arena only holds 10,000," joked Cooley in the pre-event conference call for coaches.

"Tonight (Saturday vs. Marist) the crowd was really important," said Cooley. 'We look forward to an even bigger crowd tomorrow (when the Stags play against fourth-seeded Saint Peter's at 2 p.m.).

"We'd like the entire state to support this tournament's final four tomorrow. It's going to be great basketball."

Cooley knows first hand how beneficial a home crowd can be at tournament time. In last season's championship game against Siena on the Saints' Pepsi Arena home court in Albany his team held a 13-point lead early in the second half before the partisan crowd of 10,679 began to exert its influence with noise that surely reached rare decibel levels in the facility.

Fairfield committed eight turnovers in the next 10 minutes, allowing Siena to pull into a tie and, eventually, win that contest in overtime.

Cooley has admitted, on multiple occasions, how the crowd enthusiasm that night detrimentally affected his then-young squad.

So, can you blame him for seeking the same edge at his home court over the tournament's final two days?

Fairfield didn't need it Saturday as it had an 18-point lead by halftime and was never threatened after that.

Stags' standout sophomore guard Derek Needham finished with a game-high 22 points for Fairfield, which matches a program record for victories by getting its 24th against six losses to date. Marist finishes at 6-27.

But, Marist coach Chuck Martin hopes the tournament experience will be a learning process for his youthful players.

"This game was too big for my kids," admitted Martin. "They have never been here before, and they don't understand what it takes playing the No. 1 seed on its home court. Hopefully, this helps us get better at it.

"Hopefully this helps our kids realize how much is needed to be put into it to get to that level."

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