By David Driver
For the Fairfield Citizen
Used with permission
As Fairfield ran to its locker room after Tuesday's stunning game Colin Nickerson of the Stags hollered to teammate Derek Needham: "That is what we are made of!"
The Stags were certainly made of something special, as they came back from a 27-point deficit in the second half to force overtime and then beat George Mason, 101-96, before 2,062 shocked fans in the first round of the CollegeInsider.com tournament in Fairfax, Va..
"This is the best comeback I have ever been a part of," said Needham, a starting guard who missed nine of 10 shots in the first half but finished with 21 points and seven assists.
The Stags posted their first post-season win since the 1973 NIT. Fairfield beat Marshall that year before losing to Virginia Tech in the second round. The last post-season appearance prior to Tuesday for Fairfield was in 2003 when the Stags
hosted Boston College in the NIT.
"That was one of the more grueling games ... I just keep telling our guys, `Be aggressive. Keep attacking.' We caught a little momentum and never gave up," said Head Coach Ed Cooley, who was congratulated by Fairfield athletic Gene Doris after the game. "Once we took the lead (in overtime) it was over. I am very happy for the university. This is something we envisioned when they hired me four years ago, to build a program, get to post-season and win a game."
Fairfield is slated to play Monday against Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
"Having a chance to advance is the best feeling in the world," said Stags senior Mike Evanovich, who came off the bench to score a career-high 32 points with a school-best nine 3-pointers on 14 tries.
Senior forward Anthony Johnson had 25 points and 11 rebounds and Lyndon Jordan came off the bench to score 10 points for the Stags, who went over the 100-point mark for the first time since the 1990-91 season.
Fairfield (23-10), which lost to Siena in the MAAC title game, felt it was snubbed by the NIT committee and then had to go on the road to face Mason (17-15), a Final Four team four years ago but a club that stumbled in the second half of the season. "We just played hard. Any way to keep playing is a big deal," said Johnson, who took charge in overtime.
Cooley said he told his team at halftime they had "no heart" and pointed out Mason was killing his team on the boards. The Patriots had a 25-12 rebound advantage in the first half, with nine offensive boards. But the Stags regrouped and outrebounded the CAA team 24-19 in the second half. "I really challenged our senior leadership at halftime," Cooley said.
Cooley threw his coat over his shoulder as Mason's Mike Morrison completed a three-point play with 0.6 seconds left in the first half to give his team a 49-30 lead. As the horn sounded Cooley waited on the court as all of his players and assistants head to the locker room. He took one last glance at the scoreboard, perhaps not believing what he had just seen.
But that was nothing compared to the second half. Evanovich, who had 27 points in the second half, tied the game at 87-87 with 0.1 second left in regulation when he hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key as he was hit by a Mason player. The officials watched a replay of the shot but could not detect anything wrong by the Mason defender.
Mason, playing without second-team all-CAA player Cam Long (suspension) and Kevin Foster (plans to transfer), took a 63-36 lead on a 3-pointer by Andre Cornelius with 16:08 to play. But the Patriots lost their biggest lead at home under Head Coach Jim Larranaga.
Johnson had 11 of his team's 14 points in the overtime session, mostly on inside moves and free throws.
Cornelius had 28 points to lead Mason and Morrison, whose previous career-high was 18 points, scored 19 of his 25 in the first half.
"Coach yelled at us at halftime," Needham said. "I was thinking, `Five seniors. We can't go out like that.' We definitely had something to prove" after not making the NIT.
According to reports it was the biggest comeback in the post-season history of Division I college basketball.