ELSBERRY Stags' Cooley basks in amazing comeback
Ed Cooley sat toward the front of the chartered bus that was making its way up the New Jersey Turnpike. Was it 2 in the morning or 3? Cooley didn't know. Honestly, he didn't care. There was just so much electricity buzzing around in the back of the bus, so much noise and excitement, there was no way the coach of the Fairfield Stags was going to get any sleep anyway.
And Cooley didn't want to sleep. He wanted to keep listening to the chatter coming from his players. They talked about their heart, their belief. The fact that, for 45 minutes, they never gave up. Never stopped fighting. And because they had done that, they had captured the greatest comeback victory in Division I college basketball postseason history.
"It was just a great program win," Cooley said early Wednesday afternoon, still basking in the moment that was Fairfield 101, George Mason 96 in the opening round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament Tuesday night. "Just from how the game was played, the significance of it, I didn't know what was going on, what we were doing. Making the biggest comeback in the history of postseason play is unbelievable. It was unbelievable. Wow ... wow."
With 16:02 left, Fairfield trailed 63-36. The Stags had been hammered in the first half, finding themselves trailing 49-30 at the break. Inside the locker room, Cooley challenged his two key seniors, Anthony Johnson and Mike Evanovich, to take leadership roles. He told everyone that they weren't "leaving their hearts on the floor" and that if they wanted to have any chance of making this game at least respectable, they'd better get that deficit down under 10 with eight minutes to play.
"We just had to give ourselves a chance," Cooley said. "We got it to like nine with seven minutes (74-65 with 6:07 left) to play and we had a lot of momentum and we were making shots and the guys just kept believing and you could hear them saying, `One stop ... one stop.' And little by little, we got it close."
Still, with just 1:26 to play, Fairfield trailed 84-75. What happened next, well, in Stag Nation, they say that the team's small heart grew three sizes that day (Sorry, couldn't resist). Evanovich hit a 3 with 1:05 left to make it 84-78. One George Mason free throw made it 85-78, but Needham and Evanovich hit back-to-back 3s on the Stags' next two possessions to make it 85-84 with 27 seconds left.
And after two more George Mason free throws with 19 seconds left made it 87-84, Evanovich buried a 3 -- from NBA range, according to Cooley -- with just under one second left to even matters at 87-87.
"They were going to the foul line for a one-and-one and I told Michael to get ready, it was our time," Cooley said. "I thought the kid was going to miss and I was going for the win, I wasn't going for the tie, we had too much momentum. So, with about a minute left, I felt we had a chance to win the game. "Credit the kids, they just kept grinding and grinding and believing. It's a testament to those kids' character, really. And Michael hit some incredible shots at the end."
Evanovich hit eight of his nine 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes, finishing with a career-high 32 points. And when he was done, Johnson -- the other senior challenged by Cooley -- took over. Of Fairfield's 14 points in the overtime, Johnson had 11 of them. He finished with 25 points.
"That's why you tell them to play hard for 40 minutes. We needed every second of that clock to get that game to overtime," Cooley said. "This is the greatest win I've ever been a part of. Ever. To come back like that with that little time on the clock. Unbelievable. I really can't explain it."
The previous biggest Division I postseason comeback came in 2005, when Missouri State rallied from a 23-point deficit against Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals. The largest comeback ever in NCAA history was in 1951 as Duke overcame a 32-point hole to beat Tulane.
Needless to say, the bus trip back was amazing.
"No one really fell asleep until about an hour left in the trip, that bus was electric," Cooley said. "Guys were just talking about how big their hearts were and how they believed in each other and how happy they were to be at Fairfield. It made me feel so proud, it made me feel more like a dad than a coach. It really reinforced why we came to Fairfield.
"Remember four years ago at the (hiring) press conference when all I asked for was a chance. Just give us a chance to do something."
Tuesday night, the Stags did something no team had ever done before: the biggest comeback in NCAA Division I postseason history.
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