BRIDGEPORT -- Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson sat in front of the media after his Stags had been embarrassed by Canisius in their MAAC home opener a month ago at the Webster Bank Arena and basically said that how Derek Needham goes, so go the Stags.
That afternoon, the Golden Griffins rolled to a 67-55 win. And Needham, the senior point guard, really didn't "go" anywhere. He admitted to not moving the ball around quick enough. To not getting the offense better involved. To being distracted and at times, frustrated.
And the next day, when the three seniors, Needham, Colin Nickerson and Des Wade, sat down with Johnson, Needham vowed that lack of focus would never happen again.
Big words, considering that Fairfield would play six of its next eight games on the road, including five straight. But to his credit, Needham has made those words stand up.
As Fairfield (10-6, 2-2 MAAC) heads into Friday night's game at Loyola (7, ESPNU), it has been Needham leading the resurgence. In reeling off six straight wins -- it could have been seven if Niagara's Juan'ya Green hadn't lit up the Gallagher Center for 31 points -- Fairfield's defense has only allowed one opponent to score more than 60 points. The Stags have also only allowed two opponents to shoot better than 40 percent from the floor and had only allowed one opponent to make more than 30 percent of their 3-point shots.
"The three seniors, we talked to each other and told the coach that (kind of play) would never happen again," Needham said this week. "It (Canisius) was a lack of energy and we've turned it around. We've had great practices and I think the team's starting to jell more because of that."
"We had a talk with coach and he said that he really needs our leadership," added Nickerson. "After that (Canisius) game, the words that came out of Derek's mouth were, `We won't let it happen again.' It's been clicking ever since. We're more aggressive. We're not playing at the other team's pace. We're playing hard and making the other team play to what we want to do."
Since allowing Canisius to shoot 56.3 percent from 3-point range and shoot 48.4 percent overall, the Stags have put the clamps down on defense, allowing their last seven opponents to shoot just 36.4 percent from the field and only 22.1 percent from behind the arc.
"I think we've been more focused, more locked down on the details which coach is telling us, and we've just been together as a team," Wade said. "And the three seniors, me, Derek and Colin, have been leading the young group and telling them to follow what we do and get wins."
According to Needham, getting the freshmen to buy into Johnson's defensive philosophy has been paramount to the Stags' success. Amadou Sidibe, Josip Mikulic, Marcus Gilbert, Justin Jenkins and Coleman Johnson have all contributed in the six-game winning streak.
"We have good leaders but we have good followers, too," Needham said. "It starts with having good freshmen. From Day 1, they've opened their ears and listened and tried to learn what we're teaching them. They've been great, especially Amadou. He's not playing like a freshmen, he's playing like an upperclassmen. He's rebounding the ball, playing with great energy, and he's physical."
Johnson felt that it was simply a matter of time for the Stags to find their chemistry, especially with five new faces, four of which are averaging more than 10 minutes a game.
"It takes a while to have a team come together, even though with all the new stuff we went through last year, every year it takes time to figure out what our identity is," Johnson said. "The other part is we know how Derek is leading us and what Colin and Des are going to bring and the rest now know when to fall in line behind them."
Needham isn't just leading, he's dominating. Against St. Joseph's, he made a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left to give the Stags the lead, drew an offensive foul on the Hawks' next possession and then made a free throw to lock up Fairfield's 60-57 win. And in the seven games since making his vow, he's averaging 14.3 points and 3.7 assists.
"He's been leading since Day 1, but I think that (Canisius) game, he didn't do it as much or as hard as he wanted to and that bothered him," Johnson said. "I think he looked at himself in the mirror right away and said, `I can do better.' And when your best player and most important player says, `I can do better,' everyone else says, `Me too.' So everyone embraces getting better and that's who we've been so far."