Stags fall just short in CIT semifinal
"Next man up" became the Fairfield Stags' mantra during the postseason, and despite a depleted roster, they almost reached a championship game.
With just seven healthy players in the rotation, the Stags put up a good fight, but fell short against Mercer 64-59 in the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com tournament on Saturday night in front of 1,557 fans at Alumni Hall.
"I can't speak for the guys, but I'm pretty disappointed just with the end of the season," Fairfield coach Sydney Johnson said. "I thought we had more basketball in us, and it just seemed like there were a few plays here or there, if they had gone our way (it might have been a different outcome.)"
The Stags (22-15) might not have been able to give much more, especially with injuries to guards Derek Needham (foot), Sean Crawford (knee) and Desmond Wade (hand) depleting their backcourt.
Rakim Sanders led the way with 16 points, Keith Matthews had 14 and Maurice Barrow added 12, but the Stags, who used a seven-man rotation, were never able to quite recover from an eight-minute stretch in the first half that allowed Mercer (26-11) to wrestle control.
After Sanders tied it 7-7 at 15:33, the Stags managed only two free throws from Barrow over the next 8:37 as the Bears built a 20-9 lead.
"That's basketball," said Sanders, whose team was 8 of 24 from the field in the half. "You have nights like that where shots aren't falling and you just have to stay together, keep playing. You mostly want to get on defense because when your shots aren't falling, you want to get some stops.
"Tonight, we struggled getting stops and not making plays, but that's how the ball bounced for us that half."
Mercer relied on the 3-point shot to extend its lead to 25-12, and it led 30-25 at the break after Fairfield closed on a 13-5 run. The Bears were 5-for-9 on 3-pointers in the half and finished 10-for-20 overall. Bud Thomas, who was 4-for-4 on 3-pointers, finished with 13 points, Travis Smith added 12 and Monty Brown 10.
"It was amazing how tough and physical the game was," Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. "Fairfield fought, we knew they were short-handed, but they played tremendous.
Hoffman said Fairfield put his team in a bind by changing defenses.
"We knew they were going to do that and we were able to get enough shots when they were switching to get a lead. Ten of 20 from 3 was huge ... and we made plays when we had to."
The Bears certainly did in the second half. Three times, Fairfield cut Mercer's advantage to a point in the half, but never was able to take the lead.
Trailing 35-34 with 17:05 left, Jamel Fields missed a layup that would have given Fairfield the lead. Thomas answered at the other end with a 3-pointer while being fouled by Gary Martin, which he converted for a four-point play that gave Mercer a 39-34 lead.
The Stags cut the lead to 48-47 and 50-49 just inside of 10 minutes, but baskets from Brown each time made sure the Bears stayed a step in front.