Sunday, March 6, 2011

Men: Peacocks Take Down No. 1 Seed Stags

Would lightning strike again? Would the Fairfield men's basketball team believe in miracles for a second straight post-season comeback.

It was just a little less than a year ago that the Stags made the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I post-season history, rallying from 27 points down with 16 minutes left to play to beat George Mason, 101-96 in overtime in a first round College Insiders Tournament last March.

But, not this year. Fairfield faced a similar second half deficit, down 25 at halftime of its MAAC tournament semifinal-round contest with Saint Peter's Sunday on its home court, the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Ct.

And the comeback looked similar ... a 21-2 run in the half's first 12 minutes to get its deficit down to six.

But, not this time. Saint Peter's regained the aggression it used to build its big lead in the first 20 minutes and held off Fairfield, 62-48, to advance to its first MAAC tournament championship game since 2006. The Peacocks will be trying to capture their first tournament title, and the resultant trip to the NCAA tournament, since 1995.

"I'm not going to lie ... I was starting to get a little worried," admitted Saint Peter's coach John Dunne.

"But, even during the under-eight minute time out when we had an eight-point lead ... I asked the guys if someone told you before the game that we'd be ahead by eight with under eight minutes left, would you take it? The answer was yes."

And the worry started to abate when senior forward Jeron Belin converted a drive and, shortly after that, hit a put-back. When teammate Steven Samuels picked off a pass, and drove the length of the court for an emphatic jam, the winners' lead was 10 again. It was up to 12 when Ran Bacon scored on a nice pass from teammate Nick Leon a couple possessions later, and was 14 when Leon a pair of foul shots with a little over two minutes left.

It was about then that any worries were over on this day for the Peacocks.

For Saint Peter's, this season has been a marvelous near-culmination (that could be completed by winning Monday's 7 p.m. championship contest) of the reversal of some recent lean years.

Dunne talks often about the lessons learned from losing 18 straight games when the current class of four-year seniors were freshmen. Actually, it wasn't quite that bad. The worst it got was 15 losses over a 16-game stretch.

Their next two seasons were building blocks (11-19 and 16-14), and the current 19-13 overall mark is the program's best since a 19-11 finish in 1994-95, not coincidentally the last time the Peacocks went to the NCAA tournament.

It was also Saint Peter's first victory over Fairfield in Dunne's five seasons as coach, and that stretch of losses to the Stags dates back the year before that with the Peacocks losing the past 12 meetings between the programs.

"Getting to the finals was good for us considering what this program has gone through in the past four years," said Saint Peter's fourth-year senior Wesley Jenkins, who had 14 points Sunday. "Now we want to win the tournament and take it (the championship) back to Jersey City. We're not satisfied yet."

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