Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fairfield Digs In Defensively For Victory Over Rider

The only aspect of his his team's 43 points accounting for the lowest score by a winning team only in the history of the MAAC men's tournament that mattered to Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson was that his team scored more points than its opponent.

Yet it only seemed fitting that the Stags' 43-42 victory over Rider in a quarterfinal-round contest Saturday night took place in basketball's birthplace since the offensive production of the teams seemed like something out of the peach-basket era.

"It's funny, because I had told my wife earlier that I don't care if we only win by a single point with the other team scoring the winning basket fr us, as long as we win," said Johnson, afterwards.

Saturday, there seemed to be stretches when each team's best opportunity to get points might by by the other team shooting at the wrong basket, since both squads had rare success doing it on their own.

The 43 points in victory matched a winning score of 43 recorded by Marist in a 43-40 decision over Iona in the 2009 tournament, and the combined 85 points by the two teams accounted for the second lowest total two-team score (the 83 scored in that 2009 Marist-Iona contest) in the 32-year history of MAAC tournament play.

"There's something special about the way my guys play, and I'm embracing it," added Johnson.

Neither team shot well (Fairfield made 29.8 percent of its shots, Rider 29.5 percent), and both struggled just to find shots throughout the contest (47 by Fairfield, 44 by Rider).

Offensive execution was so difficult to establish in a brutally physical contest that Rider failed to record a single assist (while turning it over 21 times), a statistic no tournament follower could ever remember happening before.

"What it says about us is that we don't get frustrated if the ball doesn't go in the basket," said Fairfield's senior guard Derek Needham, who had one of the game's few solid offensive performances with 19 points. "We pride ourselves on our defense. Even if we're not scoring, it doesn't affect our defense. We stay focused on that end of the court."

Offensively, Needham was focused enough to score nine of his team's final 11 points in the game's final 3:40.

That stretch began when the Fairfield senior connected on a three-pointer to give the Stags a 35-34 edge.

As Needham's shot went through, Johnson dropped to his knees on the sideline and pounded the floor with his two open hands to implore his team to continue to play hard defense.

"That was sign language that we needed a stop," said Needham. "I'm not surprised that he'd do that. He wants to win as much as we do."

Teammate Maurice Barrow followed with two free throws and, then, Needham ensured that the Broncs wouldn't get another lead by connecting on his next six fee throws to secure the victory.

Rider did have a last-gasp slim opportunity to tie when, trailing by three with 1.6 seconds remaining, Nurideen Lindsey went to the foul line for the Broncs. He made both, though, ensuring the winners would get the victory.

"We did try to miss the second of those free throws (which would have given Rider a tip-in possibility for a tie), but it just went in," said Rider coach Kevin Baggett.

Rider then fouled Needham with eight-tenths of a second remaining, and after he missed the first of those two foul shots he purposely missed the second since there wasn't enough time for the Broncs to get a rebound and throw a length-of-the-court shot.

The game left Rider's Baggett shaking his head afterwards.

"You have 21 turnovers without an assist and you shoot poorly from the foul line (16-of-26) ... that's going to get you beat every night," said the Rider coach.

The outcome sends Fairfield to the semifinal round for a 4:30 p.m. contest on Sunday against the winner of Saturday's late-night Manhattan-Loyola quarterfinal-round contest.

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