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2013 MAAC Basketball Tournament Preview

Every year, in practically every conference, you’ll hear the phrase “wide open” in reference to the league tournament. Coaches say it out of respect to other teams; the media uses it as a hedge against their predictions; P.R. folks spit it out to generate hype. So bear with me when I tell you that this weekend’s Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament is wide open.

But if it’s not true this season in this conference, it never will be. “The charm of our team is that we know we can lose to any team,” Joe Mihalich said during Monday’s conference call with the media. Mihalich is the coach of Niagara, the league’s No. 1 seed. Held at the MassMutualCenter, a neutral site in Springfield, Mass., nearly every team has a reasonable shot at the title.
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MAAC Basketball Tournament 2011: Semifinals

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The semifinal games were played at the Arena at Harbor Yard on Sunday. Iona and St. Peter’s will play for the MAAC title on Monday night on 7:00 on ESPN2.

No. 4 Saint Peter’s 62, No. 1 Fairfield 48

It was a tale of two halves, if ever there was one. The numbers tell the story: St. Peter’s led 40-15 at the end of the first half. Fairfield got off to a rocky start, but was down just eight, 22-14, with six minutes left in the half. That’s when the craziness began. The Peacocks went on an 18-1 run to close out the half.

Fairfield finished the half converting just four field goals in 18 attempts (22 percent) while committing an astounding 13 turnovers. Colin Nickerson alone had six turnovers. For the Stags, the passes that weren’t sailing out of bounds were slipping through their hands. St. Peter’s, on the other hand, shot 57 percent (15-of-26) and only turned it over four times. Wesley Jenkins had 10 for the Peacocks at the break. There were a number of defensive lapses very uncharacteristic of Fairfield, the league’s best defensive team.

“The first 20 minutes, we just weren’t ready to play,” Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley said. “We were listless; we didn’t play with a lot of emotion. We were really out of character as a group.”

The Stags looked more like themselves in the second half. They fed off the home crowd and ratcheted up the defensive pressure to start the half on a 13-0 run. St. Pete’s did not get its first basket until the 13:39 mark. Fairfield scored eight consecutive points after that to extend the run to 21-2 and cut the deficit to just six with 8:05 left.

“Even as coaches, how do you handle going in and talking to your guys [when you have such a big lead]?” St. Peter’s head coach John Dunne said. “Do you stay fired up? Do you yell and scream and then maybe they go out and shoot it too quick? But at the same time you don’t want to be passive and hold the ball too long.”

At the start of the second half, whatever the Peacocks were doing wasn’t working. “We just weren’t being aggressive looking up the court against their pressure,” Dunne said. “And then we pulled it out too much when we should have attacked. I think emotionally we had a little bit of a letdown and we just weren’t focused enough. [Assistant coach] Bruce Hamburger kept saying to me, ‘Once we get our first basket or two we’ll be OK.’ It took a little too long to get there.”

I’d say so. St. Pete’s second basket did not come until the 7:56 mark. However, Hamburger was right, because although Fairfield was able to trim the margin to six for a second time on the ensuing possession, the Peacocks responded with consecutive baskets and never let their lead get to single digits again.

St. Peter’s players celebrate as senior Warren Edney leaves the court.

The numbers for the second half were pretty similar to the first, except the teams were reversed: St. Pete’s made just 7-of-26 shots (26 percent) and committed 10 turnovers, while Fairfield shot 40 percent. The Stags finished with 22 turnovers.

“I thought what has hurt us the entire year [hurt us again today],” Cooley said. “Our team habits really caught us in the end. Our team’s habit is we continuously turn the ball over. We just didn’t make smart decisions with the ball and that was really the turning point in today’s game, even when we cut it back to six…But then the devil got us again. And our devil is turning the ball over.”

All-MAAC First-Team point guard Derek Needham had perhaps his worst game in a Fairfield uniform. The sophomore shot just 1-of-12 from the field, including 1-for-8 from three, and committed seven turnovers. “He played really well yesterday and he played with a lot of emotion,” Dunne said of Needham’s 22-point performance against Marist. “He was single-handedly carrying them, I thought. We weren’t going to let him beat us. We put a little more length on him than we normally do with Steve Samuels and Yvon Raymond. If we went down today, it wasn’t going to be because he was going to kill us. That being said, he did get some open looks, he just missed a couple of them that he normally does make.”

They say basketball is a game of runs and in this game there were two really big ones. St. Peter’s was simply too big to overcome. “We didn’t have a good night shooting, so we tried to speed the game up,” Cooley said. “We think our team speed is fantastic, but we needed all the things to fall when you’re down 25.”

In the end, St. Peter’s was able to beat Fairfield for the first time in 13 tries. And Fairfield, the regular season champ, will have to settle for the NIT. Fairfield students wore t-shirts that read, “Our House, Our Time,” and indeed they thought it was, after finally wrestling away the regular season league crown and hosting rights for the tourney from Siena. But such is life in a one-bid league: one loss and dreams of the Dance go up in smoke.

“It hurts,” Cooley said. “I hurt for my seniors, I hurt for our university, I hurt for our community, because we feel we built a championship team with our recruiting, and it just didn’t happen.”

No. 2 Iona 83, No. 3 Rider 59

On Sunday morning, before the MAAC Tournament semifinals, Saint Peter’s leading scorer, Wesley Jenkins, sent a text message to his cousin, Iona starter Rashon Dwight. “See you in the championship,” it read. Dwight texted back: “Take care of Fairfield first and then we’ll take care of Rider.”

Jenkins (who scored 14 points) and St. Pete’s did just that, eliminating the top seed by a score of 62-48. Dwight held up his end of the bargain, draining five threes and scoring 19 to help Iona crush the Broncs, 83-59.

The seniors have gone head to head in this family rivalry for four years at the college level, but never have the stakes been this high. The winner of Monday night’s game will win the MAAC title and earn a trip to the Big Dance.

“[The St. Peter’s players are] on the same floor as us in the hotel,” Iona’s Scott Machado said after the semifinal victory. “When we came back from the win [on Saturday night], they were all cheering for us. So now it’s a coincidence that we’re both in the championship against each other.”

Head coach Tim Cluess continued: “Can I finish that story? Because Scott left a part out. Last night, one end of the hall was Saint Peter’s, one end was us. They were having a dance off in the hall. We had two loose teams there last night.”

So who won the dance competition? “We did,” the four Iona players said in unison.

If the Gaels can beat St. Pete’s on the basketball court for the third time this season, they’ll be doing much more meaningful dancing next week.

MAAC Basketball Tournament 2011: Quarterfinals

BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The quarterfinals were held today at the Arena at Harbor Yard. In addition to the games listed below, St. Peter’s beat Loyola, 70-60, in the first game of the day, and No. 3 Rider beat Canisius 79-64, in the final game of the night.

No. 1 Fairfield 55, No. 9 Marist 31

With 7:28 left in the first half, Fairfield head coach Ed Cooley raised his palms to the ceiling and looked up, shaking his head. Warren Edney had just slipped and fell on an uncontested fast break and lost the ball out of bounds. The Stags only had 14 points. That was twice as many as Marist had, though.

And so it went for Cooley’s squad in its quarterfinal matchup, as Fairfield defeated the Red Foxes 55-31.

“As bad as we were offensively, we were that much more dominant on defense,” Cooley said. Marist’s 31 points were the lowest in MAAC Tournament history. The Red Foxes, who beat Niagara yesterday, converted just 12-of-41 shots (29 percent) and turned it over a whopping 26 times. Fairfield shot under 40 percent and committed 17 turnovers.

But the Stags have First-Team All-MAAC point guard Derek Needham, who led all scorers with 22 points. In fact, Needham outscored Marist in the first half, 15-14 (Fairfield led 27-14). Not until the 15:34 mark in the second half did Marist overtake him.

To the Marist defenders, Derek Needham was a blur.

It was an ugly win, but as the cliché goes: a win is a win, especially in an elimination tournament. Cooley was thrilled to advance, where No. 4 seed St. Peter’s awaits. “Can you guys feel my energy?” he asked members of the media after the game. “I can’t wait to play tomorrow.”

No. 2 Iona 94, No. 7 Siena 64

It is official: For the first time since 2007, the Siena Saints won’t be the MAAC Tournament champions. The No. 2 seed Iona Gaels crushed Siena 94-64 to advance to the semifinals. The Saints had won the previous three tournaments, all played on their home court in Albany. The last time they didn’t win was the last time the tourney was held here at the Arena at Harbor Yard.

As for Iona, it was its first postseason victory since 2006, when it won the whole thing. That meant no player on the Iona roster had won a single tournament game. That changed tonight thanks to Mike Glover’s 31 points and the team’s 9-of-17 shooting from beyond the arc.

“I thought we were a little slow to loose balls. It may have been last night’s game,” Siena head coach Mitch Buonaguro said, referencing Siena’s first round overtime victory over Manhattan that ended just a few minutes before midnight. “We just didn’t have our legs like we should. To play a team like this you’ve got to be on full tilt the way they play.”

The way Iona plays is fast. They push the ball up the court, even after the opponent scores, and like a game with a high number of possessions. Did Siena get caught up trying to play at that tempo? “Yeah, probably,” Buonaguro said. “We took some shots that probably were quick. We probably should have had a little more patience.”

The loss means the end of the college careers for Ryan Rossiter, who was named the conference’s player of the year earlier this week, and Clarence Jackson. Both reached the NCAA Tournament three times. “We were very fortunate. A lot of guys don’t even get to play in one [NCAA Tournament],” Jackson said.