Fairfield fell to Niagara 67-64 on Sunday, putting them in a three game losing streak for the first time since exactly one year ago.
Last year the Stags fell on the road at Siena and Manhattan and followed that up with a home loss to Loyola (MD) by three on January 13th. This year, road losses at Niagara and Loyola (MD) followed by a home loss to Niagara brought the losing streak to three.
Last season, the Stags won eight of their next nine on their way to the conference championship game. This season, the results are still in doubt for head coach Sydney Johnson’s second season.
Fairfield struggled to get to the line Friday at Loyola (MD), not attempting a free throw in the second half. In Sunday’s game, the Stags got into the double bonus with 9:53 left but only made 12 of their 19 second half free throws.
“I just feel like we have to get back to ourselves,” Fairfield junior Mo Barrow said. “I feel like we’re defending, we just have to make more shots, more free throws.”
Fairfield ranks second in conference play in defensive efficiency, barely behind Rider for the top spot, and ranks 74th in the nation in the same statistic.
The Stags have had an infusion of freshman in the lineup. Amadou Sidibe and Marcus Gilbert combined for 15 points and 9 rebounds in the starting lineup while Justin Jenkins came off the bench with a career-high 16 points.
Johnson said that he was looking for Jenkins to create because the offense was struggling against the Purple Eagles variety of defenses.
“We have not converted offensively,” Johnson said. “I felt like just putting [Jenkins] in there, he’s an offensive minded kid, putting him out there and seeing if he can try his hand at finishing some of these plays and that’s exactly what he did [Sunday].”
For the past two games a freshman off the bench has led the team in scoring. Josip Mikulic scored a career-high 16 off the bench Friday but just two of those points came after the first half at Loyola (MD). Johnson said freshman leading the way is exciting but he wants the seniors to set the tone.
“It’s exciting but it’s frustrating too because I think it’s really hard to win at the mid-major level with freshman leading the way,” Johnson said. “What I think is if we can get these contributions from them but we’re getting the senior leadership and the senior production then I think we can get back to our winning ways.”
“I’m encouraged, I think we’ve recruited well. I think that they’ve been very good teammates these young guys and they’re preparing themselves for these 16 points here or there but they still need to be following the leadership of our seniors.”
Senior leader Derek Needham, a first team All-MAAC selection in the preseason, has scored 13 points combined in his last two games. Needham saw the bench for just over seven minutes in the second half of their 67-64 loss against Niagara. While Johnson said they are not playing “any mind games” with Needham on the bench, he has worked with Needham on his leadership.
“Against Loyola (MD) I thought he was a little off his game in the 2nd half also with leadership and we talked,” Johnson said. “He was great [Sunday]. I think he could’ve played better just in terms of managing the game but we’re fine with him there’s no doubt about that.”
The senior combination of Desmond Wade, Colin Nickerson and Needham combined for 17 points in Sunday’s loss, making 4 of 14 shots from the field. That while the freshman Jenkins converted his 16 points on 5 of 15 shots. Fairfield as a team shot 39.8% for the game from the field, their second straight game shooting under 40% from the field.
“We’re not creating our own luck,” Johnson said. “We’re hurting ourselves with free throws and missed layups and we’re not closing out plays defensively.”
“I don’t know if I have seen a team lose three games in a row and play the defense that we have. I just feel our defense has been outstanding.”
While the defense has been great, the Stags have fell in their last three by a combined 12 points. Sunday’s game was the third straight game the Stags have shot less than 70% from the free throw line for the past three games. Fairfield shot 65% from the line Sunday after making just 14 of 32 (43.8%) in their last two losses.
“We felt like we had an effort that was good enough to win the game but we’re hurting ourselves with turnovers, free throws and even today it was layups,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to recenter, refocus ourselves, see if we can have a better effort as we go forward throughout this season.”
The Stags have started with one of the most difficult schedules so far, playing four of their first six in conference play on the road. Loyola (MD), Niagara (twice), Canisius (twice) and Rider, have combined for a 16-8 record in conference play through the first six games.
“I’m hoping that we can face some other teams and get back in a better groove and climb the standings,” Johnson said. “That’s the outlook that we have. We’re playing the top teams in the league right now and it’s showing up, it’s hard to beat them.”
The Stags next two opponents, Iona on the road and Loyola (MD) at home, are a combined 9-3 in the MAAC.
Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo.