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Chris Elsberry: Fairfield in midst of maddening streak

Updated 10:32 pm, Saturday, January 19, 2013
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NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- These things might happen to young teams or rebuilding teams, but not teams that have some experience. Not teams that have players who have been through the fire of playing in conference championship games. And postseason tournament games.

Like Fairfield.

That's why this current stretch has to be maddening.

Four straight losses. Five losses in the league in the first seven games. And unless a miracle occurs over the next month and a half, the chances of winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference -- or even finishing in the top four -- have dropped to slim and none.

Standing in a hallway in the Hynes Athletic Center late Friday night, after Fairfield had yet again blown a lead, fallen behind, rallied and fell just short against Iona, losing 84-73, Stags head coach Syndey Johnson spoke about his team needing the "will to win." Right now, the Stags don't seem to have it. And with three senior captains and four players who played in the MAAC championship game last season against Loyola, that seems very, very strange.

"Coach (Tyson) Wheeler said it well the other day when we were talking to the team," Johnson said. "Our will to win hasn't been as strong as the people we've been playing the last few games. I thought (Friday), I didn't like some of the stuff out there, but we were fighting. We were fighting to win the basketball game and regretfully, I felt like a few of the games prior to tonight, our will just wasn't there."

How can a team that has three seniors leading the way, knowing that this is their last chance to fight for the conference title, not have a will to win? After an ugly home loss to Canisius a month ago, Derek Needham vowed that such a lackluster performance wouldn't happen again. Yet, it has.

The losing streak is four heading into Monday night's game against Loyola, which has already beaten the Stags. Fairfield is 2-5 in the MAAC (tied for seventh place with Siena) and can't afford any more mistakes.

None.

"We'll bounce back. These losses are frustrating. We know we can't lose like that," said Needham, one of the team's three seniors. "No one's pointing fingers, which is a good thing. We've got three senior guards keeping the team together. We're in every game but there are certain plays that turn the game around, so we have to fix that."

But how?

How do you get senior Colin Nickerson, who only took two shots against Iona and is averaging just 6.3 points, to become a bigger offensive threat? How do you get senior Desmond Wade, who's made 48 turnovers, to slow down and run some solid offensive sets? How do you get juniors Keith Matthews and Maurice Barrow more involved in the low-post offense?

Good questions all.

"You take each game one by one and we'll get there. We've got great leadership. We'll get there," Johnson said. "We've been dealt a tough start but no one's going to feel sorry for us. It's been hard but we can learn from it and we just have to take advantage when things come our way."

That tough start came in the form of the MAAC making Fairfield play five of its first seven conference games on the road. And because of a four-point loss at Niagara, an overtime loss at Loyola (when the Stags didn't score in the final 4:26 of regulation), a three-point loss at home to Niagara and Friday's loss at Iona, the Stags are looking up at a lot of teams in the standings.

"We have to take advantage of our home games coming up," said Johnson, whose team now begins a stretch of playing seven of its next nine at the Webster Bank Arena. "When you get that back, and the home and away balance swings back into your favor, hopefully, we can get some momentum going."

And momentum is something the Stags desperately need. Along with a will to win.

"There's no doubt. We've been talking about that," Johnson said. "I thought that Tyson did a really good job of articulating that this past week.

As we were watching film and practicing, he made the comment and I thought it really rang true. They understood what he was getting at. Our will to win needs to be stronger.

"(Friday) it was stronger, it just wasn't strong enough."

celsberry@ctpost.com; @elsctpost

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