FAIRFIELD, Conn. -- There are a lot of things that a head basketball coach can point to when analyzing why a team won a game on any particular night. He can highlight the team's leading scorer or rebounder, or the effort put forth by the team's primary passer or long-range shooter. On this night, Fairfield University Head Coach Sydney Johnson passed all of those up for something that he has preached to his team all season long - team defense.
And it was the defensive effort that shut down Rider University a team which came off a 112-point effort in a win over Quinnipiac, which resulted in a 69-67 victory at Alumni Hall. It was the Stags' second straight win and fifth in the last six outings, pushing the team over the .500 mark in MAAC play at 8-7.
"I would have to say our team defense was the difference tonight," Head Coach Sydney Johnson said. "We have worked hard defensively in practice and that effort is continually showing up in games."
With Johnson's defensive mind set, it was only right that the game was decided on the final play when Amadou Sidibe blocked Kealan Washington-Ives' shot as time expired to finally put the game's result in hand.
"I was just thinking one play and one more stop," Sidibe said. "I just told the guys to stay focused and get one more stop so we could get the game in hand. Every game is crucial so this was a big win for us."
But tjhat block only had meaning because this was as close a game that the Stags played all season, beginning from the opening tip.
The first half was even as the two teams played to three ties and three lead changes. Neither team would allow the other to take control through the opening 20 minutes as neither could get too much of a foothold in the game. Rider's biggest lead of the game stood at seven points when it opened up a seven-point advantage on a couple occasions. Fairfield's largest edge stood at four points in the opening half at 18-14, a margin it would also reach in the second half at 51-47.
But each time one team looked as though it was ready to take command, the opponent would find a way to get back into the game. Case in point, Rider looked poised to make a big run when it moved ahead at 37-30 with two minutes remaining, but the Stags were able to cut the lead in half at 41-37 by intermission.
The Stags rallied from that four-point halftime deficit, scoring the first five points of the second half to take the lead 42-41 just one minute into the period. Rider regained the lead following Xavier Lundy’s three-point field goal which was followed by a pair of free throws from Kahlil Thomas that put the Broncs back in front 46-42. The Stags responded by scoring six of the next seven points to erase the lead and take one of its own following a Sidibe layup that pushed the score in Fairfield’s favor, 48-47.
From that point, the two teams would play to six tied scores, the last of which came at 61-61 with 5:03 on the clock. Rider seemed to take control of the game with back-to-back three pointers from Lundy, giving the visitors their biggest lead of the half at 67-61 with 4:22 remaining. Curtis Cobb cut that Rider advantage in half with a three-point field goal, and Jerry Johnson Jr. tied the score two minutes later with his fifth three pointer of the game, bringing the game to its 11th tie oat 67-67.
Tyler Nelson completed Fairfield’s 8-0 run with a seven-footer from the corner that pushed the Stags in front for good at 69-67. After Thomas missed a layup, the Stags would be sent to the line for a one-and-one with three seconds left. The first shot missed its target and Thomas pulled down the rebound.
After a timeout, Kealan Washington-Ives went up court and put up a driving one-hander as time was about to expire. Sidibe stepped up and blocked the shot as the buzzer sounded to give Fairfield the win.
Nelson led all scorers with 16 points while Johnson Jr. added 15 points for Fairfield. Lundy was Rider’s top scorer with 15 points, followed by Jimmie Taylor’s 14 points and Washington-Ives’ 13 points.