BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sixty seconds may not seem like a lot of time, but in that time the Fairfield University men’s basketball held a lead, lost a lead, and finally won the game on Tyler Nelson’s buzzer-beating three pointer which sent the Stags (15-13 overall, 10-9 MAAC) to an impressive 58-55 road win over Canisius College (17-13 overall, 10-9 MAAC) on Friday night.
“There are showing a lot of confidence in each other and mental toughness,” Head Coach Sydney Johnson said. “I think this game is indicative of the type of season we are having. We took a couple of punches and we’ve been humbled at times, but this team just sticks together and finds a way to win.”
Nelson, who used every bit of clock to send the Quinnipiac game into overtime with his buzzer-beating layup last Friday, took a pass from Matija Milin who cleared a missed Canisius shot with four seconds remaining. Nelson sprinted up the court and released a shot from 30 feet with the horn sounding as the ball was in flight. The shot touched only net by the time it finished its flight and gave Fairfield a much needed win.
It seemed only appropriate that Milin was the student-athlete who cleared the board and sent Nelson on his way to the winning shot. It was the sophomore’s effort midway through the half that brought Fairfield back into contention. Trailing 48-39, Milin posted the first of three straight baskets that made it a seven-point game. He followed with a three-point field goal on the next possession that made it a 48-44 game with 9:11 on the clock.
Layups from Nelson and Jonathan Kasibabu completed the comeback, tying the score at 48-48 with 5:54 left in the half. Phil Valenti made short life of the tie score, converting a three-point play that regained the lead for the Golden Griffs. Valenti was responsible for 13 of Canisius’ 19 second-half points.
Nelson tied the score on the next possession by putting together his own three-point play, knotting the score at 51-51 with five minutes left. Jerry Johnson Jr. scored four more points for the Stags that gave the team its biggest lead of the game 55-51 with 2:59 remaining, netting a pair of free throws and adding a running jumper as the shot clock expired.
The Griffs tied the game when Kassius Robertson scored off a jumper and Valenti’s tip in to bring the score to 55-55 with under a minute left. Canisius had a chance to win the game at the end, but missed the shot that ended up in the hands of perfectly-positioned Milin, who turned immediately and handed the ball to Nelson for his game-winning sprint.
Buzzer-beating shot make it easy to lose other factors in winning basketball games. Case in point was the Stags relentless defense that held one of the top offensive teams in the MAAC to just 19 points in the second half. Team defense is a mantra that the Head Coach Sydney Johnson has espoused all season long, and tonight was the culmination of that philosophy.
“I’ve been preaching team defense but I think it says the entire world that they have taken to it,” Johnson said. “Coaches can talk, and talk, and talk but the team has to buy into it. We have players who are open to coaching who take the cues from the coaches and execute them. We are rededicating ourselves to team defense and it is helping us play better.”
Fairfield made the most of its brief time in the lead, holding an advantage for only four minutes in this game. Canisius led for almost the entire first half, trailing just once at 6-5 four minutes into the game. The Griffs tallied five straight points to take the lead at 10-6 and never looked back over the final 15 minutes, leading by as many as 10 points before settling for a five-point lead at intermission, 36-31.
Nelson finished the game with a team-high 17 points while Kasibabu also reached double figures with 12 points. Valenti paced Canisius with a double-double, registering 23 points and 13 rebounds in his 37 minutes of work.
The Stags finish out the regular season on Sunday when they head to Niagara University for an afternoon game. The game is slated for a 2 pm start.