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On site: No. 1 Fairfield upset in MAAC semis

Posted on: March 6, 2011 5:35 pm

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Top seeds go down with regularity in small-conference tournaments. But how often do we see a team get clipped like Fairfield did … in the semifinals?

The No. 1 Stags lost on their home floor Sunday afternoon, falling to the fourth seed in the MAAC tournament, St. Peter’s, 62-48. The Peacocks possess the third-best effective field goal percentage defense in the country. So trying to come back from 25 down against them can feel like 40 against any other MAAC squad.

The deficit was too much for the Stags, who will be going to the NIT by virtue of winning the regular-season MAAC championship. St. Peter’s will get the chance to play for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995 Monday night at 7 p.m. It’ll face the winner of Iona-Rider, which I’m settling in to watch now at the Arena at Harbor Yard. It’s the first conference title-game appearance for the Peacocks since 2006.

“What has hurt us the entire year — we talked about habits, we talked about habits the first team meeting this September when we came back to school — and I think our team habits really caught us in the end,” Fairfield coach Cooley said. “Our team habits: when we turn the ball over. … Our devil is turning the ball over.”

For the majority of the second half, the Stags surged. They didn’t allow the Peacocks to score their fourth point until 7:56 remained in the game.

“Not have a meltdown and let them just take over the second half,” Wes Jenkins said of the Peacocks’ hang-on-and-win strategy. “We need our first basket to get the rhythm going. (Jeron) Belin got it from us, and we went from there.”

Belin’s basket made it a 44-36 game. Holding such a large lead was unfamiliar territory for St. Peter’s, head coach John Dunne said.

“We haven’t been in that position where we’re playing a great team — and they are — and we’re up so big,” Dunne said. “Emotionally, maybe we had a little bit of a letdown, and we weren’t focused enough.”

Today was the first loss to St. Peter’s in Cooley’s tenure. He was measured, but unhappy, in the postgame presser.

“I’m not stunned. They are kids,” Cooley said of the 40-15 halftime deficit. “You can’t get down 25 in tournament play and expect to win. That’s for damn sure.”

Was Dunne surprised by the 40-15 lead?

“No question, absolutely,” he said.

Nearly the entire building was shocked. St. Peter’s was physical and went to the hoop at will. Not only did turnovers hamper the Stags, the Peacocks’ affection for plays in the paint kept Fairfield at a standstill.

“The first 20 minutes, we just weren’t ready to play,” Cooley said. “We were listless, we didn’t play with a lot of emotion. Really, we were out of character as a group.”

Fairfield’s a team that could’ve flirted with a 13 seed had it won. Sophomore point guard Derek Needham sat in the postgame press conference, arched over, practically furled into a quasi-fetal position. Whenever a question wasn’t addressed to him, his forehead was smack-flat on the table. No tears, just disbelief. His responses to questions were barely audible.

  “They were who they were. That’s how they play every single game,” Cooley said. “We weren’t who we were.”

As far as moving forward to the NIT, Cooley said he’s not even “a little bit” thinking about pride in regard to making the NIT.

“Going into the season that was clearly not our goal. That will never be our goal,” Cooley said. “We feel we built a championship team with our recruiting.”

With a MAAC and NCAA championship off the table, the fifth-year Fairfield coach will have to settle for chasing an NIT one.

Posted by Matt Norlander

Photo: AP

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