Rider falls to Fairfield in MAAC quarterfinal
The Broncs scuffled, got hit in the face, bounced back, got hit again, came back one more time, but ultimately, never got over the hump, falling, 65-63 to Fairfield here at MassMutual Center.
“We fought right until the end,” said Rider coach Tommy Dempsey, whose team failed to reach the semifinal for the first time in four years. “They probably thought they had us buried three different times, but we were resilient and gave ourselves a chance right to the buzzer. I was proud of our effort.”
When the Broncs were buried, it was only after a frantic finish.
Up by three, Fairfield fouled Jon Thompson with 0.4 seconds left. Thompson hit the first before missing the second intentionally and Junior Fortunat’s tip came up short.
“They have some big kids who can get (a shot) off,” said Stags coach Sydney Johnson. “Some people might have been bewildered but we knew we wanted to guard the 3-point line to the extent of not letting them get it off.”
Following a sluggish first half, the game opened up in the final 20 minutes. Fairfield (18-13), which led by three at halftime, started quickly after the break extending its advantage to as many as 10.
Rider (13-19) spent the rest of the half clawing its way back. Twice the Broncs tied the score, the second time, with 4:14 to go, after Jeff Jones finished a 9-0 run with a three-point play.
Jones and Thompson both finished with 19 points. Novar Gadson, who was averaging 19.6 points per game over his last five, had eight and didn’t score until connecting on a 3 with 10:52 left in the game.
The lead, though, no matter how hard Rider fought wouldn’t come.
Sanders led Fairfield with 15 points and Wade added 12, all on 3-point shots.
”They knocked down a lot of big shots,” said senior Brandon Penn, who was shut out in his final game. “That’s what killed us.”
After Wade’s 3 with 1:02 to go put the Stags up 59-53, Gadson converted a three-point play to make it a one-possession game.
Despite having 46 seconds left, Rider fouled instead of playing out the nine-second differential between game and shot clock.
That sent Sean Crawford, an 83 percent free throw shooter, to the line. He made both, again making it a two-possession game.
As a team, the Stags only shoot free throws at a 65.2 percent clip. Fairfield went 6 for 9 from the line in last 38 seconds (Crawford was 4 for 4).
“We fouled the wrong guy,” Dempsey said. “We weren’t trying to foul Crawford. We were trying to trap him and we fouled him. There were certain guys we were trying to foul.”
Still, Rider wouldn’t go quietly. Thompson knocked in a deep 3 to cut the deficit to 63-62.
The Broncs then fouled Colin Nickerson, a 55.9 percent free throw shooter. He made the first and missed the second but Sanders outmuscled Danny Stewart for the rebound.
For a split second, it looked like Fortunat’s tip may fall. When it didn’t, the Broncs were again on the wrong side of the coin.
“This season could have been a 5-25 at one point,” Dempsey said. “We stayed together, we band together and found a way to fight through to the finish line. We didn’t go away and showed a lot of courage.”
Too bad there are no points for that.
“We have a lot of hard workers that never give up,” Penn said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win.”