Men's College Basketball-MAAC Quarterfinals
Fairfield University 43, Rider University 42
SPRINGFIELD, MASS.-"Offense sells tickets, defense wins championships," said legendary college football coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant.
The conference office does all it can do to sell tournament tickets, but defense was the name of the game Saturday night in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship Tournament.
The second seed, Rider (18-14), saw its season come to an end, scoring the fewest Bronc points in over 20 years.
The seventh seed, Fairfield (19-14), won despite scoring just 43 points, the least Rider has allowed since the 2010-11 season.
"We knew it was going to be a grind," said Rider head coach Kevin Baggett, "we just thought we'd have a little more patience and understanding of what we were trying to get done. I liked the way we competed, the way we played defense, but we had too many break-downs on the offensive end."
Rider led 34-30 with 5:30 remaining before the Stags scored the next seven points, five points by All-MAAC guard Derek Needham, to take a 37-34 lead with 3:06 left to play. That was the 11th and final lead change of the game.
Needham made six of eight foul shots in the final 37 seconds and finished with a game-high 19 points. Fairfield was 13 of 18 (72.2) from the foul line for the game. "They made their free throws and we didn't," Baggett said. "Free throws are important. They cost games when you don't make them."
Sometimes they can cost a game when you DO make them.
After Needham's two free throws made it 43-40, Rider junior Nurideen Lindsey (Philadelphia, PA/Overbrook) stepped to the free throw line with 1.2 seconds left. Lindsey made the first, and, attempting to miss the second, made it, for the final score. "We were trying to miss that on purpose," Baggett said. "He just made it."
The Broncs scored the first seven points of the second half, five by junior Anthony Myles (Dover, DE/Poly-Tech), to take a 21-18 lead with 16:23 left to play. Myles finished with nine points and seven rebounds.
"Their pressure dictated the pace of the game," Myles said. "They sped us up."
Rider did not score a basket in the final 9:00 of the first half and was just four of 10 from the foul line in the first 20 minutes.
Fairfield out-scored Rider 12-4 over the final 12 minutes of the first half, four points by Needham, to take an 18-14 lead at the half.
The 14 points was the lowest scoring half of the season for Rider. The second lowest was 19 points, also against Fairfield.
Rider jumped out to a 10-6 lead, four points by junior Daniel Stewart (Philadelphia, PA/Neumann-Goretti) and three by sophomore Junior Fortunat (Montreal, Quebec/Roman Catholic). Stewart finished with six points and 10 rebounds, while Fortunat added six points and four rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.
Playing in his finial Rider game, senior Jonathon Thompson (Orlando, Fla./Jones) compiled 12 points and eight rebounds, along with three blocked shots and two steals.
"It was a defensive game and they played better defense than we did," Thompson said.
Rider did not make a three-point field goal (0 for 6) for the first time in MAAC play (16 years), and the Broncs were not credited with an assist for the first time since joining the MAAC.
Rider did manage to out-rebound Fairfield 42-30, but the Broncs turned the ball over 21 times and made just 16 of 26 foul shots (61.5 percent).
"21 turnovers, no assists, poor free throw shooting will get you beat every night," Baggett said.
Fairfield defeated Rider twice this year during the regular season, 65-52 in Lawrenceville on December 9 and 69-59 at Fairfield February 1. Since joining the MAAC, Rider is 17-18 against the Stags, including 0-3 in postseason, 0-2 in postseason the last two years.
The game brings to an end an outstanding season for Rider. Coach Baggett inherited a team with just two returning starters and six total letterwinners that was picked to finish seventh and led his first squad to 18 wins and a second place finish. Baggett's 18 wins is third most ever for a first-year head coach at Rider, behind Bob Greenwood (20 in 1962-63) and Clair Bee (19 in 1928-29).
That did not win a championship this year, but, with 12 players returning, should sell some tickets for next year.