Friday, February 15, 2008

Weekend Games with Rider, Marist the Perfect Test for the Stags

Three weeks from now, the men's basketball team will travel north to Albany, N.Y., for the MAAC tournament, an opportunity for the Stags to challenge the premier teams in the conference.

But they'll get an earlier chance to vie for MAAC supremacy.

This coming weekend, the Stags play host to Rider and Marist, who are currently first and third, respectively, in the MAAC.

If ever there was an opportunity for an unpredictable team to break the trend and assert themselves as a legitimate threat in the MAAC, then this may very well be that chance.

Consecutive comeback victories and an impressive road victory against Niagara have provided the Stags with a rare attribute: confidence.

"This [streak] was big for a lot of reasons," Cooley said. "I think that we are a very good road team, and we need to bring that same energy to our home base."

During a silent moment in the final 10 minutes of the second half, Cooley yelled to the crowd to wake up and make noise.

Cooley said that he is hoping for more support from the crowd this weekend.

"Coming down the stretch, we want to be playing our best basketball, which I think we are," said Cooley.

Based on Cooley's qualifications, the time may be right for Fairfield to confront the daunting task of facing Rider and Marist in the same weekend.

On Saturday, Fairfield will tip-off against Rider, the top team in the conference. Despite a recent loss to Siena at home, Head Coach Tommy Dempsey and the Broncs have looked nearly unbeatable over the past month of conference play.

Prior to its most recent game, Rider had won 10 consecutive contests and did so in dominant fashion. The win streak featured an average victory margin of 13.5 points.

Senior Jason Thompson, a 6-foot-11-inch NBA prospect, is the leading threat for the Broncs.

Like most teams with a single dominant player, Rider is at its best when Thompson is at his best. This season, the Broncs have won nine of 12 conference games, in which Thompson has scored at least 18 points per game.

Even after Rider leaves town, things do not get much easier for Fairfield. Two days later, a highly talented Marist team comes for a President's Day matchup at Harbor Yard.

On Jan. 13, the Stags lost to the Red Foxes, 77-70. At the time, Fairfield was struggling mightily, having lost eight of 11 heading into the game.

Even in the face on an imposing weekend of games, Cooley said he remains optimistic. He said that the team's emphasis on defense means that the Stags can compete with anyone in the conference.

"It all starts on defense - it's that energy," Cooley said. "Anything we can do to get energy points, or extra points, or effort points."

Cooley added that the prospect of playing the underdog role in the coming weeks does not faze him or his youthful lineup.

"I think our [energy] really sends a message," said Cooley. "You don't always have to be the most talented team to compete in games."

Fairfield's recent surge began last Friday night against Manhattan. Despite a lackluster effort early in the contest, the Stags overcame a 12-point, second-half deficit in only five minutes to secure a thrilling 66-61 win over the Jaspers.

A few days later, Fairfield erased a six-point Iona lead in the second-half and put away Iona, 68-59. The victory stretched the team's season-high winning streak to three games.

Cooley was quick to attribute recent success to increased production from the bench, especially the veterans.

"We have about five or six games left in our career," Marty O'Sullivan '08 said. "The only thing on my mind is to keep winning and keep that going."

However, it is possible that the true cause for the turnaround is that the young roster is finally buying into the unselfish, team-oriented approach that Cooley has preached from the start of the season.

"I think we are really starting to come together as a team," O'Sullivan said.


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